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Making It New

New York City Ballet:  Premiere of Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit / David H. Koch Theater. NYC / October 5, 2012

Old-time followers of the New York City Ballet used to yearn for “another Balanchine”; today’s fans are more realistic.  They count themselves lucky to discover “another Christopher Wheeldon”—an astute practitioner of the classical craft even if he doesn’t regularly fire the imagination.  At 25, Justin Peck, a member of City Ballet’s corps, stands out in the crowd of aspirants to that status and has already achieved far more.  Proof:  his Year of the Rabbit, set to a score by Sufjan Stevens, which entered the company’s repertory on October 5, and is slated for three subsequent performances this season.  Can it be just wishful thinking that I found it thrilling?

Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit for the New York City Ballet—full cast
Photo:  Paul Kolnik

In a September Works & Process program—part of the marvelous annual show-and-tell season at the Guggenheim Museum—Peck had delineated his own “process” in detail and at length until I, for one, wondered how dancing as I knew it could result from such a complex and mechanical system.   They do say that Petipa worked out his choreography on a chess board, but Balanchine, equipped with his profound musical understanding, pretty much just walked into the studio and worked directly on the dancers.  À chacon sa méthode.  Peck’s method provided a skeleton for a brilliantly ordered dance for three couples:  Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz, Teresa Reichlen and Robert Fairchild, Janie Taylor and Craig Hall (the last pair rather more equal than the other two), and a corps that almost proved Peck’s desire—stated at the W&P event—to make corps and principals equal partners.

Ashley Bouder and male quintet in Year of the Rabbit
Photo:  Paul Kolnik

Peck’s choreography for the three featured couples and a 12-member corps pushed City Ballet’s dancers beyond the extraordinary physical prowess we’ve already seen from them.  The challenges of the choreography displayed their strength, speed, and daring, coupled with its opposite—control, which makes immaculate precision possible.  Peck played ceaselessly with the idea of the individual in contrast to the group, not with the entities as rivals for the available space or the viewer’s attention but as partners in creating his singular world of youth at play and, inevitably, in love.  Jerome Robbins’ Interplay, which now seems corny (and was always arch), might still be usefully thought of as Year of the Rabbit’s godfather.

Joaquin De Luz and trio in Year of the Rabbit
Photo:  Paul Kolnik

Most “emerging” choreographers fold references to their elders and betters into the new work they’re making.  Like the best of them, Peck slips this sort of material into his own matrix with wit and understanding as well as admiration. Needless to say Balanchine is always there—as in the moment when the dancers are seen half in and half out of the wings the way they are in Symphony in Three Movements, but Peck has them lying supine, visible only from waist to crown. I enjoyed most the takes on Bronislava Nijinska—because they’re ingenious and beautiful of course, but particularly because they seize upon a school of classical dancing that is not part of the Balanchine legacy.   (Peck is a product of the School of American Ballet, from which he moved directly into City Ballet.)

Craig Hall and Janie Taylor in Year of the Rabbit
Photo:  Paul Kolnik

Rabbit is structured within an inch of its life.  The stage pattern, shifting like a kaleidoscope running on High, is always balanced—which would, of course, be wearisome if it weren’t arranged in such refreshing ways and rearranged every few seconds.   The qualities of romance and its best friends, melancholy and yearning, make their appearance in several passages that are not as original or imaginative as the presto sections.  They are workmanlike to be sure, occasionally touching, but I hope, one of these days, to applaud the moment in which Peck invites legato out on a date.

Throughout the ballet, Peck’s authority is evident.  As is his earnestness of purpose.  Both qualities will help him push forward.  In time, if we’re lucky, he’ll allow the unplanned to expand what he’s doing.

Earlier this season, though unable to write at the time, I marveled at City Ballet’s rendition of Balanchine’s choreography in three programs devoted solely to the master’s work.  I wondered then, as I have on several other special occasions, why the company allows lackluster performances when it can render the work with the empathy and brilliance it deserves.

A special evening was also devoted to honoring the fashion designer Valentino whose “costumes” can give a society woman marvelous éclat, but who doesn’t get—and why should he?—the very basics of ballet costuming.  Valentino gave his “dancing girls” tutus in peculiar and unflattering shapes worn over white panties that might have come from today’s equivalent of Woolworth’s.  The women’s legs were sheathed in tights in the dreadful pancake-makeup tint that, in bygone times, was supposed to represent Caucasian flesh.  (To my knowledge City Ballet includes no African-American women.)  The leg line—classical ballet’s hieroglyphic—was set afire at its tip by the inevitable red pointe shoes, red being the designer’s signature color.  The effect traduces the Moira Shearer film that got it just right.

Anyone will tell you that these gala evenings are not meant for the critics but rather for the company’s donors, as one of several means of inducing them to keep up their much-needed, much-appreciated financial support.  But what could we learn from the Valentino evening—that wealthy patrons of the company, communally, have tawdry taste?

© 2012 Tobi Tobias


  1. Designing costumes for dance is perhaps the most challenging of any for a costume designer, especially outside of the big story ballets. The limitations are many and varied. A professional designer from some other field often produces an effect like a kick in the ass — not very pleasant but you certainly notice it. I’ve always been of two minds as to whether there’s value in it or not.

  2. This alone, is priceless language: “They are workmanlike to be sure, occasionally touching, but I hope, one of these days, to applaud the moment in which Peck invites legato out on a date.” And to close: “But what could we learn from the Valentino evening—-that wealthy patrons of the company, communally, have tawdry taste?”

    Wonderful post!

  3. Ann Ilan Alter says


    I have missed your insightful comments. Your review of Year of the Rabbit is excellent and to the point. It occurred to me as I watched it that some have a talent for choreography, others don’t. I saw the program Saturday afternoon which included the Millepied Two Hearts – which had some lovely moments, but didn’t satisfy. Year of the Rabbit in contrast was dynamic, exciting, and really engaged me as a viewer. Yes it is very controlled and yes it will be great to see Peck develop a “mature” style that is less tightly wound, yet I found the whole performance a wonderful experience, and beautifully danced. The one thing I will say for the Saturday afternoon dancing – from the Two Hearts by Millepied, to Peck’s Year of the Rabbit and onto Wheeldon’s Les Carillons, which I like more and more, was that the quality of dancing was generally excellent throughout. Indeed Craig Hall and JanieTaylor were particularly well-matched, but the last time I went to City Ballet a couple of weeks ago the dancing was stiff and boring.

    And what I always notice when I am at the ballet on Gala evenings is that wealthy patrons have bad glitzy taste, no originality, and all look alike. It’s like a display of figures at Mme. Tussaud’s.

  4. Allen Dickstein says

    Just saw it today and you are right on the money.

  5. Martha Ullman West says

    Knowledgeable readers will recall that easel painter Kurt Seligmann came close to sinking “The Four Temperaments” with costumes that were so bulky and unwieldy that Balanchine took a pair of scissors to them at the dress rehearsal for its Ballet Society premiere in 1946. Mary McFadden once designed strapless tutus, so help me God, for an Oregon Ballet Theatre work by James Canfield based on a Degas painting, causing a last minute stitching of flesh colored elastic straps so the dancers wouldn’t, so to speak, come unhinged.

    On the other hand, after the premiere of “Apollo,” in 1928, Balanchine himself persuaded Diaghilev to call in designer Coco Chanel to redo the costumes. But I agree that the last line of this post is just terrific and possibly has universal application.

  6. Brilliant and insightful review of Peck’s work! You put it all in perspective, as always.

    Galas being for the donors? I agree. I think the use of Valentino, though, had a different purpose. His costume design for the gala was a PR device that worked big time–the resulting glam and celeb attendance worked its publicity magic–photos/red carpet stories were everywhere! Big Hollywood style sells seats.

  7. For a choreographer whose process was detailed, complex, and worked out before he walked into the studio, you don’t have to look as far back as Petipa at the chessboard. You have Merce Cunningham with his dice, his I Ching (whose hexagrams number the same as the individual squares on a chessboard–64), his danceforms computer program, his often intricate notes. Of course he was also composing his “score” at the same time–that is, the rhythms of dances made in silence. Cunningham is surely dance as we knew it.

    • I wasn’t trying to get as near as possible, but rather further back in time, though still with a well-recognized name.

      • I see just what you mean….But to me they are in a sense at the same distance, just in some kind of equilibrium that is the continuous past. I make a strange historian. However, I take your point and never think you do anything except by exacting intention.

  8. Barbara E. Klein says

    I saw this wonderful piece this afternoon. Loved it. I hope to see more of Peck’s work soon.

  9. Leo Greenbaum says

    I certainly agree with you.

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