Ballet 422 chronicles 25-year-old choreographer Justin Peck’s choreographing of the New York City Ballet’s 422nd ballet. Black Swan this is not, nor should it be, but while cinema verite at its finest, the film dances around any real engagement with the viewer. Austere and skeletal, it tends to run a bit like a dancer’s diary. There is nothing here to draw a “lay” audience in and little to indicate story-telling on the director’s part.
Jody Lee Lipes offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s most prestigious dance companies. Justin Peck has two months to create the piece for the company’s winter 2013 season. A member of the Corps de Ballet, he is also a dancer; in fact, in the final scene, where we see him leave the premiere of his piece to change into his dancer’s costume is a wry nod to superheroes of all ilks.
Ballet 422 really does not offer us even a modicum of psychological insight into any of the characters. There are no interviews, no insights. In fact, even though putting on a ballet in 2 months is clearly a Herculean task, this is hardly palpable here. We never get a sense of the enormity of Peck’s or the dancers’ accomplishments.
Peck appears somber most of the time, and smiling is hard to come by in this film, on all sides. Uber-seriousness rules the day. This makes for a very isolating feel to the documentary. It’s almost claustrophobic. It is hard to see why we should care about any of the characters, devoid of any information about any of them. An upside is that we are not presented with the dictatorial, (megalo)maniacal choreographer trope that seems to be the hallmark of most art films (i.e., Whiplash).
What is perhaps even more frustrating is the purposely-choppy flow of the film. We only get glimpses of rehearsals, glimpses of costume design, glimpses of the orchestra. And in the end, we do not even see the entire ballet.
Ballet 422 does offer an intimate, albeit limited, look into an art form of breathtaking beauty. Sadly, there is dearth of insight into the creative process or into the thoughts of any of the performers or Peck himself. Austere and stiff; it suffers from an odd determination to make even the most graceful and awe-inspiring clinical. In a sense, because we do not see too much of the struggle, it risks diminishing Peck’s and the dancers’ accomplishments. If the mark of the professional is to “make it look easy,” then Ballet 422 should receive ample accolades. In all other regards, this runs like nothing more than the skeletal, scribbled notes of someone putting something together.