Ballet 422 (2014) is an engaging, honest, fly-on-the-wall observation of a professional dancer’s life. It follows Justin Peck, a member of the corps de ballet at New York City Ballet, focusing on the two months he had to construct the company’s 422nd original ballet, Paz de la Jolla.
Peck is a fantastic dancer. Even though (at the time) he was only a member of the corps, the lowest rank in the company, being in NYCB in any capacity means you’re one of the best dancers in the world. Certainly one of the best in America.
In modern popular culture, television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dance Moms have re-popularized the art for millions of people. They also give a poor representation of what dance is like on a professional level. Ballet 422 isn’t full of drama, staged or otherwise. There aren’t people screaming at each other. You won’t see any cat fights or meltdowns. Instead, the film’s drama is organically felt through Justin Peck, in his nervousness and in his uncertainties, and through awe at his spectacular talent. The film’s intention is to show the complexity of compiling a ballet from its infancy to opening night, and to clue people in on how dedicated professional dancers are to their craft. Nothing that Justin does throughout the entire film would be possible without a rigorous professional environment of support behind him, from his fellow dancers to his production assistant, lighting crews, costume designers, orchestra, and so many others.
There are a number of wonderful shots in Ballet 422 that show Justin leaving the NYCB facility for the day, walking out into the streets of New York, waiting for the subway, making his way home. He’s a member of one of the most noted dance companies in the world. He’s currently producing an original ballet that will be showcased as a credit to the company that employs him. Yet when he goes out into the street, nobody knows who he is. He’s just another New Yorker with a backpack and a t-shirt, heading home for the day. And this is a reality that separates the artists in professional dance from most other artforms, from most other athletics, from most other public arenas. Save for a few notable exceptions, being amazing at ballet doesn’t make you a household name.
Peck and his fellow dancers spend their lives thinking about dance. When they’re at the studio, they are absorbed in what they are doing. They don’t just make it a part of their day, they make it their existence. The film contains shots of Justin analyzing his dancers’ movements while the camera isn’t showing us the dance. It lingers on Justin’s face. We watch him as he watches them, completely tuned into his work. And when he goes home at night, instead of turning on a film or booting up the Playstation, he’s reviewing footage of the day’s dance rehearsal.
It’s not glamorous. It’s not for prestige. It’s art for the sake of art. A real passion. And a real job.