JUSTIN PECK BRINGS THE BALLET TO BROADWAY IN 'CAROUSEL'
For years, Justin Peck has been one of the leading lights of the ballet world, the creator of numerous works that have helped push the centuries-old art form into a new age who was named New York City Ballet’s second-ever resident choreographer at just twenty-six. But this spring, he shifted his attention twenty blocks south from his usual home at Lincoln Center to Broadway for the first time, choreographing a starry revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic musical Carousel and earning himself a Tony nomination in the process.
Having first premiered in 1945, Carousel is regarded as one of the greatest musicals of the twentieth century and tells of the tumultuous romance between carousel barker Billy Bigelow and millworker Julie Jordan in a fishing town in Maine. When the hot-headed Billy stabs himself rather than being captured after a botched robbery, he arrives in Heaven, where he is permitted to watch over his now-teenage daughter Louise, who has grown up alienated and withdrawn. In the tradition of mid-century musicals, Louise’s tale is told as an instrumental ballet, performed here by City Ballet soloist Brittany Pollack. As with the rest of the show’s choreography—especially an athletic expanded version of “Blow High, Blow Low” led by City Ballet principal Amar Ramasar—this wordless dance sequence displays a number of Peck’s hallmarks, from complex geometries to eye-catching details that feel both casual and precise all at once. What is different in Carousel is the narrative aspect, so necessary to propelling the story forward in a musical, but something Peck tends to eschew in his ballet work. Still, he says he savored the challenge. “I always respond well to working under parameters, so it was a lot of fun to have to work with narrative and storytelling through movement and see what I could bring to that,” he explains. “Sometimes I find it much more difficult if there’s just any possibility in the world to do anything. I find it hard to hone in on what the work ends up being.”
Carousel arrives on Broadway this season as the latest in a new wave of crossover with ballet, one which has seen former City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild earn a Tony nomination for his performance in An American in Paris, directed and choreographed by famed ballet-maker Christopher Wheeldon, while his sister and fellow principal Megan took a turn in the revival of On the Town before American Ballet Theatre star Misty Copeland stepped into the role. “A lot of dancers in the ballet world are much more versatile than they were before and perhaps they’re more interested in working on different projects,” suggests Peck about the recent proliferation of pointe shoes around Times Square. “The community is also responding by putting much more interest and emphasis on cultivating worthwhile dance in theater.”
In a neat convergence, Broadway also moved onto the ballet stage earlier this year at Peck’s home company, which celebrated the centennial of Jerome Robbins with a festival of the legendary choreographer’s works as well as a new greatest-hits program that collected several of his dances from West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, and more. Peck also made his own contribution to “Robbins 100” with his latest première, “Easy,” set to jazzy Leonard Bernstein. “I was interested in examining how Robbins used movement and body language to communicate amongst human beings,” he explains. “I was aiming to create a dance dialogue onstage and a lot of that was inspired by what Jerome Robbins did on Broadway. I definitely feel like I was in a headspace to explore a kind of theater dance style throughout the year with working on both Carousel and this new commission, so it’s been a slightly different focus for the season for me.”
Peck may have first made his name in ballet, but he says the theater was his original inspiration and he admits that, even through all his years at City Ballet, he never gave up the dream of making his way back. After all, he started tap at the age of nine after seeing Savion Glover on Broadway in Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk and has not forgotten his roots since. “It’s hard to articulate what inspired me then because I was so young at the time,” he explains. “It was something about the music and the physical response to the sound and the audible interaction that tap has with music that I found really gripping.” Calling his work on Carousel “almost nostalgic,” he adds that it has also inspired him to return to tapping, planting seeds for a future project, “something new and original that incorporates more theatrical movement and tap movement and style.” Having already conquered ballet and Broadway, it seems the ever-restless Peck is still not content to take it easy.
Carousel is currently running at the Imperial Theatre, New York.
Styling by Jordy Huinder. Grooming by Eloise Cheung at Kate Ryan Inc using Aveda products.