If you’re someone who makes things, if you’re someone who loves beautiful things, or if you’re someone who needs to know how things are made, seek out the documentary Ballet 422. The film follows 25 year old corps de ballet member Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet as he choreographs the company’s 422nd ballet. As a corps member, Peck is a bottom-tier dancer with the company, but his work in a choreography workshop was promising enough that was been entrusted with the commission of an original ballet. And hilarity ensues.
No, not really. Instead we get unprecedented access to the guts of the NYCB. Rehearsals, costume production, music, all of it. I promise, promise, promise that you do not have to be a ballet fan to be fascinated by this documentary. You just have to appreciate the idea of a world composed of a million hidden moving parts. What I loved about Ballet 422 is that it spends zero minutes with its characters sitting down in front of the camera, telling the viewer what they think of a given situation. Everyone just does and the movie is better for its lack of this documentary standby. If you’re in Toronto (as you should be, it’s great here) Ballet 422 is playing at the Bloor Hot Docs cinema until March 22nd.
If you’re in the mood for some further reading on the craziness of the ballet world, I urge you to seek out The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. Nijinsky, who danced in Russia, America, and France through the early 1900s is widely considered to be the greatest male dancer of the twentieth century. This is despite the fact that there is only one short film clip of him dancing and only one of his pieces of choreography has survived. In large part, he was a man who made his own myth. He was also diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and lived out his last thirty years in an asylum. His diary was composed in the period leading up to his institutionalization when he is literally going mad. It was originally published in a heavily edited form by his wife, but you want the unexpurgated 1999 edition with an excellent introduction by Joan Acocella.
If you like your ballet with some pop culture, check out this New Yorker profile of Benjamin Millepied, written just as he took over the Paris Opera Ballet. You’ll know Millepied as the guy who choreographed the film Black Swan, had an affair with its star Natalie Portman, and put a baby in her belly in time for awards season. The two are now happily married. Also, his last name literally means “a thousand feet” and he’s a ballet dancer, a fact I don’t think gets enough attention. It’s like when that Moneymaker guy was winning all the poker.
If you like your ballerinas a little less smarmy and French, you must read this New Yorker profile, and anything else you can get your hands on about the American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland. Copeland is ABT’s first ever African American principal dancer and the story of how she got her start in dance is BONKERS enough for me to put that word in all caps. Also, oh my goodness, watch this commercial of Copeland dancing because her calves are the most exceptional thing I’ve ever seen.
And while you’re watching stuff on your computer or mobile device, find a way to stream the tragically short-lived series Bunheads. It was made by the same people who made Gilmore Girls, I would argue that it was even better than that program, and it tragically lasted only one season. This is my favourite dance number from the program and generally one of my favourite things.
Were you worried I’d forget Center Stage? Don’t worry, I’d never forget Center Stage. I used to have it on VHS and watch it every time I was home sick. Mean ballerine Zoe Saldana! The final number to that Michael Jackson song! I still say a little prayer to the dance gods every morning that someone will stage a real-life production of Cooper Nielsen’s ballet from the film because it seems tons of fun.