Q&A: Jody Lee Lipes talks about Ballet 422

Director Jody Lee Lipes talks about Ballet 422, his new documentary about Justin Peck

Jody Lee Lipes, director of the documentary BALLET 422.

Jody Lee Lipes, director of the documentary BALLET 422. Photograph: Mark Romanek

Director Jody Lee Lipes teams up with producers Ellen Bar and Anna Rose Holmer and editor Saela Davis for Ballet 422. The filmfollows Justin Peck as he choreographs Paz de la Jolla, a 2013 work for New York City Ballet featuring Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar. It also documents the early stages of an artist. Before Ballet 422 opens at the Tribeca Film Festival on Apr 19, Lipes talks about what drew him to this story.

In Ballet 422, film director Jody Lee Lipes follows a worthy subject—New York City Ballet soloist Justin Peck—as he choreographs the company’s 422nd work, Paz de la Jolla, which premiered in 2013. In his film, Lipes cracks a window, without sentiment or comment, on the creative process, all the while illuminating the solitary life of a choreographer on the brink of stardom. “If you want to see a performance film,” he advises, “this is not the film to see.” The director, who works with Lena Dunham on the HBO series Girls and codirected NY Export: Opus Jazz—a sparkling rendering of the Jerome Robbins ballet—is just as fascinating as his subject. In his sophisticated Ballet 422, he does more than scratch the surface of NYCB: He takes us inside.

How did you get the idea for Ballet 422?
Ellen Bar [director of media projects at NYCB] was doing a Works & Process program with Justin at the Guggenheim for his Year of the Rabbit ballet. I didn’t really know him very well; there was this point in the presentation where Justin had Tiler Peck perform part of a movement that he wasn’t really finished with yet. She went through it, and then he got onstage and corrected her. He said, “It’s more like you’re waking up.” He was using all of this language that was very clear and concise, but not something that I’d ever associated with a choreographer and a dancer. He seemed so confident and so unaware of the audience. I was shocked, because he’s so young. I was like, How does this guy just totally shut off the audience? To me, it was almost like a film director talking to an actor. And then she did the movement again, and it was totally different with the same exact steps. He was really excited: “That’s right, that’s right!” And then he went back to this interview with Ellen, and I thought to myself, It’s so fascinating that this guy is so focused and so clearly knows what he wants. It’s like watching a master filmmaker work with a talented actor.

And you wanted to capture that?

I thought it would be really fascinating to see the whole process of someone like that working. I went to the premiere of the ballet with Ellen and Anna [Rose Holmer], the other producer of the film, I asked, “Did you guys shoot any stuff with him while he was putting this together?” They hadn’t. I thought it was a pity that there was no document. I felt like that ballet was going to be around for a really long time, and Justin’s going to be around for a really long time. It would be great to see the beginning of this career. So that’s how it all got started.

What was so appealing about him at that point?
We got to capture him maybe at the last moment that he was sort of new at choreographing. He’s very confident and sure of himself, but at the same time, there are moments in this process where he’s tiptoeing and not knowing how he should behave. I think that’s a really precise time in someone’s creative career.

It also shows a hidden side of ballet: Dancers start out so young and become adults while they’re learning how to be professionals. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I totally agree. It’s like this weird mixture. In some ways, people in the ballet world are way farther along than regular human beings, and in some ways they haven’t experienced huge parts of life that most other people do, so it’s a mixture of those things: They’re more adult and less adult.

What did you learn about ballet in this process?

I don’t know. In a lot of ways, the movie isn’t really about ballet to me. Same thing with Opus Jazz. The thing that interests me is the person, and when someone is really dedicated to what they do and consumed by it and exceptional at it, that, to me, is a fascinating thing to watch. With Opus Jazz, it was more about learning about Jerry [Robbins] and trying to rise to the occasion to do something that he wouldn’t hate. In this case, it feels interchangeable with any creative process. The first documentary I made was about an artist named Brock Enright [2009’s Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same]; it’s very similar in a lot of ways in that it’s this guy putting a show together. And I think that’s what interests me more than literally ballet.

I love the solitary shots of him. What was your objective?
It fascinates me to watch when an artist is really into what they’re doing. The first time I experienced this was when I was in college working on Palindromes, a Todd Solondz film. I was in charge of moving his video monitor. He would be so entranced by what was happening in front of him that he would literally be mouthing the lines as the actors were saying them. This is a similar thing. The most beautiful part about this is watching someone watch their idea come to life. How everything else in the world shuts off and they’re just zoned in on that one thing.

That’s exactly what happens. Justin’s focus is the thread. You also spend a lot of time incorporating the music and the orchestra, along with the pianist Cameron Grant. Why?
Generally Cameron is a fascinating guy. I actually just shot something else with him. The music [by Bohuslav Martinu] is a huge part of it. In ballet, historically speaking, there’s this tradition that music comes first and the composer comes first even in the way ballets are billed. It’s just a really important part of the process. I think it would have been a bigger part of the process if there had been original music for this ballet. 

What are you doing with Cameron?

Justin has a new ballet that he’s putting together so Ellen and I did a promo for it which is also like a music video for the music that Sufjan [Stevens] wrote. We use a brand-new camera that hasn’t really come out yet: It’s black and white, and it’s really beautiful. Cameron is a big part of it. It’s a solo piano piece for Tiler and Amar [Ramasar]; Justin did the choreography, so there’s a lot of overlap between that project and this, but this is a much more formal, visual, music-video kind of experience.

You don’t use documentary tools like voiceovers or talking heads, and the people in the film aren’t identified. Why did you make that intentional choice?
It became about what was happening. I think this film tries to rise to the level of someone like a Frederick Wiseman, and takes a lot from that tradition and so that’s a goal—or in the past at least: to let the story tell itself. I think most people will understand who’s who, and I don’t think it gets in the way of the story—I think you see someone, you see what they’re talking about, you see what they’re doing and you learn what it is. Giving someone a title or a name doesn’t always tell the story of who they are. We were very careful about making sure that information was conveyed in the film where people who don’t know anything about ballet can understand it, and we did test screenings for that purpose because it’s such a particular world, and there’s such a particular language. I was surprised—some of my friends who are artists and live in New York didn’t understand the concept of intermission. They were like, “Oh wait—was that a different night?” So you just have to be really careful about explaining those things and as far as we can tell, it’s clear—and letting people show you who they are rather than telling people who people are is the strategy of the film.

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