Opera and Ballet have a lot in common. Both are performing arts typically presented in a theater with an orchestral accompaniment. They both typically tell stories and have sets and costumes. Yet modern opera struggles to survive while new ballets thrive. The disparity is easily explained. Opera, obviously, has both music and words, but the words only achieve permanence if the music successfully resonates with the audience. Ballet, also obvious, has music and dance. But success here depends on the dance. Any music will do if the dancing has style and art. Thus, a great choreographer can choose his score from Bach to a contemporary popular musician. If the dancing works the show will succeed.
Justin Peck (b 1987) is currently the wunderkind of the dance world. Born in Washington, DC he grew up in San Diego. He began tap dancing when he was nine years old, after seeing a performance of Bring in ‘da Noise. When he was 13, he witnessed a performance of Giselle which inspired him to begin training in the ballet form. The following material is taken from the bio on his website.
After attending the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center from 2003-2006, Justin was invited to join the New York City Ballet as a dancer in 2006. As a performer, Justin has danced a vast repertoire of works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Alexei Ratmansky, Lynn Taylor-Corbett, Benjamin Millepied, Christopher Wheeldon, and many others. In 2013, Justin was promoted to the rank of Soloist, performing full-time through 2019 with the company.
Justin has created over 50 dance works — more than 20 for New York City Ballet. His works have been performed by Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Australian Ballet, Dresden Semperoper Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Boston Ballet, Juilliard, National Ballet of Canada, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, LA Dance Project, Dutch National Ballet, the School of American Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Houston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Ballet Austin, Atlanta Ballet, Ballet Bordeaux, Finnish National Ballet, Ballet MET, Royal Danish Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, University of Southern California (USC), and Ballet Arizona.
Peck choreographed the feature films Red Sparrow (2016) starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Francis Lawrence; West Side Story (2021) in collaboration with director Steven Spielberg; and Maestro (2022) in collaboration with director/actor/writer Bradley Cooper. He choreographed the 2018 Broadway revival of Carousel. The production was directed by Jack O’Brien and starred Jessie Meuller, Joshua Henry, & Renée Fleming.
In 2014, Peck was named the New York City Ballet’s Resident Choreographer, the youngest and only the second ever to hold the position. The other holder of the position was Jerome Robbins. He is married — to a woman, Patricia Delgado a former principal dancer with the Miami City ballet.
His choreography leans toward the athletic. His dancers often wear sneakers. His dances have a unique style that once you are familiar with it makes his work easily identifiable. As he holds a position previously occupied only by the great Jerome Robbins and as they both created the dances for two movie versions of Bernstein’s West Side Story I thought it would be instructive to compare how they choreographed ‘America’. Robbins had the advantage of the performance of a lifetime by George Chakiris who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Bernardo. His partner Rita Morena also won an Oscar. In the Spielberg (2021) film Ariana DeBose is terrific as Anita also winning an Academy Award. But David Alvarez good as he is can’t match the magnetism of Chakiris. The two versions of the number are below. Robbin’s staging is more confined than Peck’s, though other dances in Robbin’s version are set in the open.
The following three videos are examples of Peck’s current work. He not only creates dances for the stage but is interested in films as much as he is in the theater. He also incorporates tap dancing into his choreography. He’s still young enough to perform in the dances he creates. He’s a major talent who given his youth should be an artistic force for decades to come.