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Ballet made hip through the eyes of a young choreographer

New York City Ballet's Justin Peck is lighting up stages around the world as both a choreographer and soloist
Young choreographer breathes new life into classic art form 05:41

Ballets dreamed up by Justin Peck feel at once classical and new, an energy that has become distinct to the young choreographer's work. In just a few years, Peck has become one of the most sought-after choreographers in the world of ballet.

At 27, he is both a soloist dancer and the resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet - the second person in history to hold the position. As a member of one of the most renowned creative engines in the world, Peck has made a name for himself as the ballet world's "next big thing."

"I'm just trying to make classical ballet and then other people come to me and tell me that it looks like this whole new fresh thing to them and it's always so surprising to me and also something that I get excited about."

Justin Peck in rehearsal for Heatscape with Miami City Ballet dancer Nathalia Arja. Daniel Azoulay

An engine in his own right, Peck has choreographed eight ballets for the Company. He's also the subject of a new documentary, "Ballet 422," which follows him, at the age of 25, from the conception to the premiere of what was his third piece of choreography for the New York City Ballet, "Paz de la Jolla."

From that point the young choreographer's work has continued to evolve. Peck, who describes his work as being "musically driven," "collaborative," and "athletic," says he's fascinated by working with larger groups of dancers and likens the experience to constructing a house.

"Two two-by-fours, you're not going to be able to do much. But if you have hundreds of them then you're able to construct something much more elaborate, complex, and rich."

As a relative latecomer to the ballet world, Peck began dancing in his native San Diego at 13 years old and enrolled at the School of American Ballet at 15.

The school was started in part by George Balanchine, one of the giants in the history of the art form. Balanchine later worked to establish the New York City Ballet, the first truly American ballet company. His technique, like Peck's, was rooted in classical language, while also inflected with modern concepts.

"He's a choreographer who's really musically driven and so my process has been kind of similar in a way because I'm really just a lover of music," Peck said.

For Peck, the process of creating a ballet all starts with just that. "I try and create choreography that's in conversation with the music that the audience is hearing."

Justin Peck looks on during the rehearsal of Heatscape at Miami City Ballet. Daniel Azoulay

His regular position at the company as both an active dancer and resident choreographer has afforded him the opportunity to dance consistently alongside the same dancers for which he now choreographs. He grew up with many of the dancers at the School of American Ballet and knows their strengths and abilities. As a result of that familiarity he says, "a lot of times I'll start to think about choreography in relation to a certain piece of music and I'll immediately start to see a certain dancer in my mind."

Two of the dancers Peck has worked most often with are New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck (no relation) and Amar Ramasar. Both have danced leading roles in a number of his works. As his peer at the School of American Ballet and later the company, Tiler remembers the first time going into the studio with him.

"Everybody respected him. He has this sort of way of being very fun, because we're all his friends too, but he still get's what he wants."

Ramasar adds: "My first experience with him, I felt like he was an experienced choreographer. You want to be in the room for this person. He has a vision, you want to work for him."

In line with that, it's clear to Peck that the process of choreography is far from a solitary one.

"I've always thought of the process of creating ballets as being this kind of team effort. It's not like being a painter where you have your paint and you have canvas and you just go at it. I'm working with these living, breathing, functioning human beings and they have their own thoughts and ideas about what works well movement wise."

The hope, he says is "to create this cohesive vision for what the ballet is going to be."

Beyond Lincoln Center, where the New York City Ballet is based, Peck's collaborations with musicians and artists from outside the company have brought new fans to the art form. Last year, Peck premiered his second work with indie-pop icon Sufjan Stevens. "Everywhere We Go" was Stevens' first original orchestral work. Peck expected they'll collaborate again.

"It's nice to find someone, especially a composer who's able to write music that's danceable and that's smart, and Sufjan has that innate ability to do just that."

This month, Peck's most recent work, "Heatscape" debuted for the Miami City Ballet against the backdrop of brightly colored murals. Peck worked with Shepard Fairey, the street artist best known for his iconic "Hope" poster commissioned for President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. The partnership is the first of its kind for Fairey, who has primarily worked in street and graffiti art.

Peck's position for the New York City Ballet requires he creates two ballets a year while continuing his role as a soloist dancer. Next year, in addition to several premieres around the country, Peck will head abroad to work with what is the oldest ballet company in the world, the Paris Opera Ballet.

From there, it's unlikely life will slow down for him.

"I am at a slight advantage in that I am a young person contributing to this art form and I have an understanding of this generation." Along with others in his generation Peck hopes, "we can spark more interest in the next audience of ballet lovers."

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