Ballet 422 (Magnolia Pictures, NR)

ballet 422_75Ballet 422 is a fascinating documentary that will appeal not only to ballet fans, but also to anyone who appreciates the hard work required to bring a new artistic creation successfully to life.

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The origins of ballet can be traced back to European courts of the 15th and 16th century, and even today there’s something inherently regal about the art. By its very nature, ballet is a luxury rivaled only by opera, requiring performers who have spent years in specialized training and a team of creators with equally extensive experience in arts such as choreography, costuming, and music. Together, they must not only create an amazing spectacle, but must also make it look effortless.

Ballet 422 offers an insider’s look at all the work that goes into making a ballet, following the creation of a new work (Paz de la Jolla) for the New York City Ballet (NYCB) by choreographer Justin Peck. It goes from the beginning of the choreographic process to the premiere performance. (Paz de la Jolla is the 422nd work created for the NYCB, hence the film’s title).

Director/cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, whose other credits include Tiny Furniture, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Girls, received amazing access to the working processes of the NYCB, and his unfussy verité style allows the inherent visual interest of his subject to shine through. Lipes shares the cinematographic duties with Nick Bentgen, who also worked on, among other things, Catfish and Teenage, while the expert and unobtrusive editing of Saela Davis is also key to Ballet 422’s effectiveness.

Lipes eschews both voice-over narration and non-diegetic sound, with the result that viewing this film is like being a privileged fly on the wall who has been given access to the working processes of one of the world’s greatest ballet companies. A few title cards supply contextual information, including a sort of countdown clock that lets you know how much time is left until the ballet’s premiere, but they feel like they were included to fulfill a contractual obligation, presenting information about the NYCB that may be good to know but is not really essential to appreciating this film.

Not surprisingly, Lipes devotes most of the screen time to the dancers—warming up, rehearsing, being fitted for costumes, receiving physical therapy, performing—but also takes us inside the costuming process (who knew dyeing cloth could be so interesting?) and to music and lighting rehearsals. He also lets us see the trial-and-error nature of the choreographic process, with Peck beginning his work alone in the studio, trying it out with the dancers, and revising it with the aid of video and sound recordings. In contrast, we see only glimpses of the completed piece in performance, which may have been due to legal restrictions but also reinforces Lipes’ emphasis on observing the process that goes into making a ballet rather than focusing on the finished product.

Ballet 422 is a fascinating documentary that will appeal not only to ballet fans, but also to anyone who appreciates the hard work required to bring a new artistic creation successfully to life. The ultimate statement about artistic professionalism comes, appropriately enough, at the film’s conclusion. At the premiere of Paz de la Jolla, Peck watches from the audience, appears on stage to take his bows, then hurries off to change so he can dance in final piece of the evening’s program. In other words, even on the night of his world premiere, when his name appeared on the program next to those of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, Peck (age 25 at the time of filming) can efficiently switch his professional gears from receiving a bouquet on stage to performing as a member of the corps de ballet. | Sarah Boslaugh

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