Artists I admire: Justin Peck

I first read about Justin Peck in a New York Times article a few weeks ago, when one of his new pieces was premiering at New York City Ballet. Peck is a soloist for the company, and he's also their Resident Choreographer. And he's 28.

Peck entered City Ballet's New York Choreographic Institute in 2009 and was identified as a rising young talent. As a result he was asked to choreograph the company's 422nd ballet, and that process became the subject of a documentary called Ballet 422. I watched the film a couple of weeks ago, and it was fascinating and inspiring to watch a young, seemingly unflappable artist maintain control over a process with any number of moving parts (literally), yet somehow continue to behave with dignity, humanity, and tranquility throughout.

There's a moment where a dancer executes a particular movement phrase incorrectly, and Peck asks her to repeat it at least five times. His response after each repeat is simply "No," and then he shows her again until she completes the phrase the way he wants it. As I watched it, I felt uncomfortable for the dancer, as I could sense her frustration and embarrassment that this was happening in a room full of her peers with cameras rolling, and I wondered about Peck's choice to keep making her repeat the phrase. In retrospect, thinking about the moment, I realized two things. First, Peck has every right and a responsibility to ask the dancer to execute the phrase as he wants it. She's being paid to do that. Second, his "No" was never aggressive or condescending or frustrated. Nor was it followed by "that's not right" or "that's wrong."  It was just a "No" followed by more coaching. It made me think about how being direct and simple with an assessment can be valuable. And potentially less threatening or confusing than an overly careful explanation of why something isn't working. I'm very careful sometimes, choosing words and phrases that I think are ways to protect performers, and instead I think that I may be more confusing than clear. Peck was crystal clear in his assessment of the phrase. And the dancer finally executed it correctly as a result of his clarity and coaching.

After Peck sits in the theatre and watches the premiere of his piece, a camera follows him backstage and reveals that he will indeed step back into the role of soloist, a dancer in the company, and perform with some of the dancers who just danced his premiere. It's one of those humbling moments that reminds us that we all put our pants (or tights) on one leg at a time.

For being an extraordinarily gifted dancer and choreographer, for doing it all with precision, grace, and humility, and for showing me that being direct with a performer does not have to be negative, Justin Peck is the artist I admire for this week.