When Tiler Peck joined New York City Ballet in 2005, she was a fresh-faced 16-year-old with a dazzling pirouette and a killer jump. Immediately apparent was an exuberant performance quality that seemed all too rare for a young ballet dancer; Peck, after all, was the same dancer who moved from Bakersfield, California, at the age of 11 to appear in The Music Man on Broadway. Peck, who just turned 21, is now a principal with the NYCB; next week, she’ll make her debut as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Yes, she can act and yes, she can dance, but the most enthralling development in Peck is a new vulnerability; she spoke about the shift at the David H. Koch Theater.
How early did you start dancing?
My mom owned a dance studio—so pretty much as soon as I could walk. She always put me in the baby classes and somehow I’d always work my way into the advanced room. But I didn’t really get serious into ballet until I was around eight. I started out with a jazz background; my mom always made me do ballet. She said, “You’re not going to be a good jazz dancer unless you have technique.” It really wasn’t until I came to the School of American Ballet that I realized, This is what I want to do. I was 11; I came for The Music Man.
Up to that point, what had you done in L.A.?
I did commercials. I had done movies. I did Donnie Darko, A Time for Dancing and Geppetto with Drew Carey. He was great to work with. It’s funny to watch now, that’s for sure. [Laughs] I had done all that before I came here. My agency sent me out here and I auditioned for The Music Man, but I didn’t really expect to get it. I just wanted the experience. I was here for two days and at the end of the second day, Susan Stroman came in and they offered me the job. I was like, Oh—what am I going to do? I’m 11 and I live in California. [Laughs] And my mom couldn’t leave, and my dad also had to work, so my grandmother moved out with me for a year. I’m really close to her. I’m from Bakersfield, but she would drive me two and a half hours to take [class] at Westside School of Ballet with Yvonne Mounsey. I couldn’t really be here without her. She kind of got me my training. It was great to take from my mom, but at a certain age she was like, “You need to take from somebody else and not your mom.”
Is it because it’s hard to take criticism from your mother at a certain point?
No. She didn’t like to say much to me. Even now! I always have to ask her: “Did it look okay?” Which is nice. I don’t think I’d like it if she were the other way around. Bakersfield is a small town and she has the best school there, but I think she wanted me to grow and to experience other things.
So at 11 you moved to New York with your grandmother.
My grandma! [Smiles] [My teacher] Colleen Neary had told me that I should really audition for SAB. The year before I moved here, I was studying at Westside and she was one of the main teachers there; I think she had called SAB and when I auditioned for The Music Man, they let me take class. I took with Darci Kistler and Suki Schorer. It was definitely different; I had never been in such an—I don’t know. It’s not intense, but everyone’s in uniform and it’s a very formal atmosphere. Everyone’s very quiet. Nobody says anything at all. [Laughs] I loved the classes. So after I’d gone home and they offered me the job and I was moving to New York, I was like, “I kind of want to go back to SAB.” Susan Stroman also said, “It’s really hard to keep your technique up when you’re in a Broadway show. You’ve gotta really do something else, and you’re such a good dancer. You’re so young.” So I would take class at SAB during the days and do the show at night. I loved it.
Did you have to audition for SAB?
Yes. They put me in fifth division and I was there the whole time I was in The Music Man; it closed after a year. SAB wanted me to stay, but I was still so young, and after being away for a year—my mom would come and visit, but I missed home. So I went home and kept coming back for summer courses. I came for two or three summer courses, and each year they would ask me to stay, which I finally did when I was 14.
Unlike a lot of dancers who come to SAB somewhat late in their training, much of your ballet education was formed there.
Yeah, most of it was. At home, it was my mom, and then I had my jazz teachers—Marguerite Derricks, who does all the film work in California, and Dee and Tina Caspary. They were jazz teachers, but they were really adamant about good technique. Most of my ballet training was at Westside and SAB. And I did take privates [in L.A.] with Alla Khaniashvili, who was a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet. When I did my jazz, that’s who gave me my ballet; I just did hard-core privates with her and she made me do the basics. I felt like it was going so slow, but she made sure I did everything right.
Do you miss jazz dancing?
Sometimes I’ll go take a class, and I like it a lot, but really there’s only so much that I could have done with it in California. I didn’t want to be a backup dancer for a singer. Or just do a dance scene in a movie. I wanted a challenge and ballet wasn’t as easy for me as jazz was: I wanted to see what I could do with it.
I remember that Suki Schorer once told me that she really got after you to stretch every day.
Oh, yes! She did. When I very first got there, she made me learn stretches from Misa Kuranaga—she’s a principal now with Boston Ballet. Suki made sure I did them every day. She would always ask, “Are you doing your stretches? Are you swimming? Are you doing Pilates?” [Laughs] I loved the teachers at SAB. Suki was amazing. In class you’d feel like you’d go through her whole book [Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique]. She does every single step! Even now whenever I can go back [to SAB], I go and take her class. It’s hard and really good. I think everybody from the company tries to go back and take class at SAB—it’s different. You know, we get corrections there, and here they kind of let us do our own thing.
When she was insisting that you stretch, that was because you had so much catching up to do?
I don’t think so. I’ve always been strong. There are two types of dancers: the ones that are strong and the ones that are very loose and maybe don’t have as much strength. I think it’s good both ways. I had the strength and she just wanted to make sure that I kept stretching. And I was also a short dancer; you want to make yourself look as long as possible.
But you have grown so much since you were an apprentice—
I did! [Laughs] Every time I go to the therapy room, because they’ve seen me, and every time I sit down: “Are you growing still?” And I’m like, “I don’t know—I guess I am.” But I did. I was the shortest in the company and now I’m definitely not. I think I’m 5'5" and a half.
You were an apprentice for how long?
I wasn’t for the full year, that’s for sure. I got my eight or nine ballets—whatever you need to get, I had gotten it before my year was up, so I think it was five or six months. I got thrown into one of Peter Martins’s ballets, Concerto for Two Solo Pianos. It’s the hardest thing for counts; that’s the ballet I got my contract with. I was so scared, but it went fine. I was so happy.
How did you make the transition into the corps de ballet?
I think that the most difficult part is that you go from the school, where the group you get into the company with are kind of at the top, and then you get into the company and everybody is so amazing, and you just feel like you’re at the bottom again trying to work your way up. It’s like starting from scratch. When you’re an apprentice you understudy a lot, but once you’re in the corps—it happens so fast. They just put you right in, and I was on in every show, probably doing two ballets a night. The hardest thing was that I was not used to doing the complete [run-through] the day of the show. We do the ballet twice in one day, so if you were in two ballets you’d be doing it four times.
Essentially, you would run the ballet completely during the day and then perform it at night?
Yes. It’s a good way to get you strong, that’s for sure. But it’s hard.
What surprised you about yourself in terms of getting through that?
I’ll never forget this: Right before I got promoted, I was doing the pas de quatre in Swan Lake. The hard thing about being in the corps is if you’re getting pushed you’re doing your soloist roles, but you have to do all your corps parts as well. So pas de quatre was Ana Sophia Scheller, Megan Fairchild and me, and we did 14 in a row. They didn’t have another cast doing it and not only did we have to do all the pas de quatres, but Ana and I had to do all the swans because we were in the corps. I didn’t know the body was capable of getting through something like that. [Laughs] You feel you’ve accomplished something in the corps and then you make it to soloist; it’s like you overcame it and you know you’ve worked hard to get where you’re at. It’s not like you’re just given something. They make you really earn it.
How were you promoted to soloist?
[Grins] I have funny stories for both promotions. For soloist, I had just done all those pas de quatres and it was the end of Nutcracker, and I had danced Dewdrop [in The Nutcracker]. I had done something to my foot in the finale; this was the first time I’d ever gotten what I thought was an injury. It was before my back. I only had to be out for a week or something, but I thought it was like the end of the world. I knew I had done all those great things and I felt like if something was going to happen, hopefully it would be coming up, and I just felt like it was the end of the world. I went to go tell Peter Martins that I had to be taken out for a week and a half; Sleeping Beauty was coming up and I was supposed to do Jewels opening night and Bluebird. He gave me a hug and I just started crying. And he was like, “Oh, stop crying—if I promote you will that make you feel better?” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yes, you deserve it, I’m promoting you to soloist.” It happened right on the fourth floor. Ana Sophia got promoted the same day. He said, “I’m also promoting Ana but don’t tell her.” It was great. I didn’t believe it.
What about the promotion to principal?
It was Robbie Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, Tess Reichlen, Amar Ramasar, Gonzalo Gonzalez and me. We knew he was doing a ballet for all principals—that was the rumor, and we were all called to his new ballet and we had been rehearsing for half an hour and we didn’t think anything of it, and all of a sudden he came up to me. He was trying to do a kick into a pencil turn, and he said, “Can you do a double instead of a single?” I was like, “Yeah,” and he patted me on the cheek and said, “Of course you can, because you’re a principal.” [Laughs] We all just kind of looked around, like, Is he joking? Or what? And then he stopped for a second and said, “You’re all promoted, you’re all principals in this room.” And then he just kept going. He just kept rehearsing us. We were like, “Did it happen?” We learned more and it was time for [a break], and he said, “Should I give you guys time to celebrate?”
You are such a strong dancer technically. When did you figure out you had such a good turn?
It was always the easiest thing for me to turn. When I did jazz and stuff, I could do eight, nine pirouettes if you asked me to. If I have to do a turn it’s normally not the thing I’m worried about in the variation. Or in Dewdrop, everybody stresses out about those turns and it’s my favorite entrance.
What do you worry about in a performance?
Anytime you put me in a tutu and I’m doing very classical ballets. I didn’t grow up doing that. You put me in something like Dewdrop—it’s just dancing. But put me in a tutu? I end up loving it, but before the show I am nervous.
Like for Sleeping Beauty?
Yes! [Laughs] Like for Sleeping Beauty. I’m very excited. I like doing story ballets a lot because I come from an acting background. In Sleeping Beauty, all the acts are so different; you really have to have a story in your head to show the differences. I think the hardest dancing is in the first act. It’s powerful—she jumps a lot, and there is the Rose Adagio. And in the second act, you kind of have to be dreamy; you can’t have the crisp sharpness of the first act. You have to be more fluid and show that you’re a vision. And in the third act, I think there is a maturity and you show more of an ease in your dancing. You have everything together. That’s what I’m going to try to show. [Laughs]
Are you watching old tapes? How are you preparing?
I always do that. When I did Theme and Variations, which is very classical, but it’s one of my favorite things to do, I watched tapes of Miranda Weese. Not to copy her; it’s just nice to see a more original cast, like learning Copplia from Patty [McBride]—I could take what she has and make it my own, and that’s what I’m going to do with Sleeping Beauty.
Whom have you watched tapes of?
I have Miranda. I was a really big fan of her dancing. Her upper body was to die for. I loved watching her dance and when she left, I was sad; I learned a lot from her. Mostly that’s who [ballet mistress] Susie [Hendl] has been bringing to rehearsals, because she knows I’m a really big fan of Miranda’s.
Weese worked with her, too.
Yes. She loved Miranda. And there are tapes of Ashley Bouder, because it’s more recent. Things have changed a little bit. I’m nervous, of course, but I’m excited. The more I rehearse it—at first, I was like, how am I going to get through this? But the more I rehearse it... Susie is always like, “Don’t think of it as the whole ballet. Just think of it as one entrance at a time. Just like you do with Copplia.” I work with Susie a lot. She coached me on Other Dances and Copplia and Dewdrop. I think she has an amazing eye. Everything she says to me, I’m like, Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so right.
What has she told you in terms of Sleeping Beauty?
She really makes it clear that I have to show the differences. In the vision scene, she says, “You’re not something real. Even the way you walk and the way you use your feet—really walk through them and make movements. Don’t just do steps.” She makes it work for you. I think that’s what she’s great at. She’s really good with the individual: making it for you and not just set steps that have to be done the same way for everyone. Not everybody has a huge arabesque or can turn a certain way, and she always says, “For you, I think it’s better this way,” and I like that. I don’t like: “Everybody does this arabesque—you should do that arabesque.”
Who else do you rely on for advice or trust to watch you?
I love hearing feedback. I’m one of those people that really do listen. I try my best to take everything that people say and then decide what I want to do. Even [SAB faculty member] Suki. She sees one performance of everything I do, and that is the best, because sometimes they don’t really say all that much to you after the show. Suki, you know, will sit there with me for half an hour and tell me, “Well, with Mr. B., this step is really supposed to be...” I love hearing it. And Damian Woetzel.
Do you have that relationship from dancing with him?
Yeah. His last year, I did Carousel with him, American in Paris, Fancy Free—he knew of my acting background and I think he was a dancer who really thought deep into that. When we did Carousel, we just related. Even though I was so much younger than him, when we were onstage it didn’t even [Pauses and shrugs]—
Well, I always thought that you made him younger and he gave you a kind of maturity.
Yeah. He taught me so much and he was a mentor and I think he liked giving advice; he kind of was passing down his information and I really think that’s when my dancing started to grow into something different. Especially after my injury. I went out actually right after I’d done Carousel the first time; Carousel was the first thing I did when I came back, and it was completely different. I remember the feeling. When you’re injured you think that’s the worst thing that could happen to you.
What was your injury?
I was out for six months with a stress fracture to my back. For three months I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t get into a brace; I just went to California and let it heal. I did that and had three months of physical therapy and the first thing I performed was Carousel, because I knew that Damian would take care of me. When you’re injured, you learn the feeling of vulnerability. Honestly I think my injury was a blessing in disguise. I thought it was the worst thing, but I learned so much about my dancing when I came back--not to take advantage of my body. You also learn how to be soft. I was so young when I started at the company. I just did everything one way. I mean, I’m not happy I got injured, but I am at the same time—I just learned a lot about myself.
I noticed it too—your dancing changed.
Yeah. So after that and working with him, I was very lucky. I was very lucky to get the opportunity to work with him right before he left. I was in his retirement show and that was amazing. We’re getting ready to do Fancy again and it will be my first time without him. So we will see. But I get to do it with Tyler [Angle], who I love. [Laughs] I remember the first night after my injury in Carousel—there’s that moment when I come under Damian’s arm and I just look up. I have never felt so many emotions. I could feel that it was completely different.
Did your stress fracture happen during a show?
It wasn’t one thing in particular. I had done Romeo + Juliet, and I remember it hurting me during that, but there were lots of arabesques. I did Carousel after that and Symphony in Three Movements. That was the last thing I did. I got thrown into the jumping girl [role] and I did the turn where you kick the back of your head, and I remember up until then, I had been able to deal with the pain when I was onstage, I didn’t feel it. And during that show I could feel it. I went offstage and I was like, There is definitely something wrong. They kept saying that I was really tight. In general, my muscles are very compact and that’s what allows me to jump or turn. But I went offstage and I knew that there was definitely something wrong with my back. I went and they took an X-ray and they said I was fine and then I took an MRI, and it was a stress fracture. It was good. I got to go home. I hadn’t been home in so long, and for three months I was just a normal person with my family and that was really great. But you go through that, Am I ever going to be able to dance again? I couldn’t even remember what it felt like to lift your leg to the back. I know so much of a better way now. Everything feels better.
What have been some other important roles for you? Here or elsewhere?
[Grins] You know what? I did Giselle.
Did you? Where?
In Hawaii with Joaquin [De Luz]—he asked me. It was my first really big full-length, and it was right after I’d come back from my injury; I feel like that was the really big turning point. We don’t do [dances like Giselle] here. Joaquin came from ABT, so he would show me how!
I’ll bet he could dance every part.
[Giggles] It was amazing—it really was truly good. I really think that my arms have been different ever since doing that.
More aware and I know how to be softer. Not everything has to be in a position. It can bend. [Laughs] I did it twice. It was great. The mad scene? I loved. And I watched tapes of that, too. I watched Alina Cojocaru and others. I studied it. Not coming from a ballet background, I didn’t really know the ballet. When he asked me, I was like [Casually], “Sure, I’ll do it,” you know, and we were in rehearsals and he said, “Have you ever really seen this?” And I said, “No, not really.” [Laughs in horror] He couldn’t believe it. Working on Other Dances was important too. I learned it last season when Damian did it, but I didn’t perform it until this past season, and just learning that role—that was the first time I really worked with Susie. I learned that and Dances at a Gathering—the pink girl. I haven’t performed it, but I learned them at the same time. Those were the moments I started realizing that I liked doing those kinds of parts more than the jumping that I used to love.
Like Woetzel, you’re good at Balanchine and Robbins.
He really left me in a good place, I feel. I really do feel like he helped me get my start.
I remember talking to you when you were an apprentice. Does NYCB still feel like a good fit?
I love it. I couldn’t be in a company that does classicals all the time. And I think that’s what I found so intriguing at SAB; ballet wasn’t the same as what I had learned from my Russian teacher. It was always kind of boring; you learned the steps and the positions, but it really wasn’t like dancing, and then you get to SAB and you start doing variations. And you’re like, “Whoa!” There’s something with Balanchine—the counts with the music—that is so intriguing. We were doing Agon or something and I was like, “This is ballet?” I love that about our company. I love that we get to bring new choreographers in and I get to work with Mauro Bigonzetti, who is a contemporary choreographer, so I feel right at home. That way I get to do both of the things I love. I don’t think any other company does that as much as we do. Our rep is great, and then we also get the opportunity to work with tons of different choreographers. I couldn’t see myself in any other company.
Do you dance as much as you like? Generally?
Yeah. I mean last year in the spring I was doing a premiere every week. I was like, I can’t even sew enough pairs of pointe shoes. But the more you go out there, you get better. I love being onstage. As much as I can be onstage I want to be, and as many opportunities as they give me? I love it.