' Cinema Romantico: Ballet 422

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ballet 422

Jody Lee Sipes’ concise and effective documentary chronicles choreographer Justin Peck helming a new ballet in a brief two month window for the prestigious New York City Ballet, though you should not expect any kind of narrative hand-holding in the form of talking heads and in-depth explanations of who this is or what that’s about. Instead, “Ballet 422” immerses you, intensely, and from the get-go, with a wide shot of the stage filled to the brim with ballerinas moving to and fro, all in some form of warm-up or practice. It feels sink-or-swim. The principal dancers, for instance, are never even formally introduced, never given names, never explained their vital roles. Instead we simply glean their crucial position as the film moves along. It’s a film that expects you to pay attention even as it simultaneously sweeps you away in the process.


A few title cards are all the exposition we receive. There are no specifics given as to what Justin’s ballet is or is about, or what the musical accompaniment will be, aside from its 1935 origin. Art’s emotional vagaries are of no interest here; this is all tangible, labor intensive, the grind, the glorious grind, of what goes into mounting a production. Details are paramount, and the people responsible for those details. Costume Designers. Lighting Technicians. Orchestra Members. Composers. There is one particular shot of the composer as he listens to the orchestration. But the camera is in on him tight, no cutaways, as if he’s alone in his own world, which he might be. Who else Justin is remains of no consequence. Maybe he is no one else? The couple shots of him at home find him going over details of the ballet. It’s all-in all-the-time.

This is certainly much more clinical than uber-operatic, fictional renderings of the ballet, like my beloved “Black Swan”, where it was all obsession, jealousy and rage composed with a camera of grand extravagance. There is little in the way of hard-hitting drama in “Ballet 422”; mostly, it sweats the small stuff, like opening your elbows the right way in the midst of a pirouette, or some such. Yet, occasionally you…well…sense something. Like the dancer who can’t open her elbows the right way, for instance, who initially smiles about how she keeps getting this tiniest of details wrong only to lose that smile the harder she works at it. You can’t forget there’s a camera and you wonder if these people are bottling up. Like when Tiler Peck, the principal dancer, gets done up in her costume and she keeps this awkward smile plastered to her face.

Nevertheless, Lee Sipes is not interested in muting drama in the name of triumph. He keeps this film at ground level, never shying away from how hard it is to render great art. Not that the art itself is ever placed into any kind of context. The actual production, in front of an audience, is seen from afar, from Justin’s seat high up in the semi-nosebleeds, and only for a couple minutes, not much more. We spend as much time with the dancers applying makeup and having their hair done as we do in the midst of the performance. And when the performance is done, Justin accepts a few congratulations and then hustles out, to get back to rehearsal for another performance of which he will be part. The work goes on.

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