Year of the Rabbit – 21st Century Choreographers, NYCB

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Year of the Rabbit
21st Century Choreographers II
New York City Ballet
30 April 2014
Lincoln Center, NYC

Music: Sufjan Stevens (orchestration: Michael P. Atkinson)
Choreography: Justin Peck
Principal Casting: Lauren Lovette, Tiler Peck, Teresa Reichlen, Harrison Ball, Robert Fairchild, Craig Hall

Costumes: Justin Peck (costumes supervised by Marc Happel)
Lighting: Brandon Stirling Baker

Premiere: 2012, Lincoln Center

After Les Bosquets, Program II opened with Justin Peck’s acclaimed 2012 work Year of the Rabbit, a ballet for 18 dancers set to Michael P. Atkinson’s string orchestration of Sufjan Stevens’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, an electronica album based on the Chinese zodiac.

Much has been written about Justin Peck’s emergence as a world-class choreographer and also about his affinity for the New York City Ballet: his innate understanding of the pure distillation of movement and music, the rhythmic pulse and quickness, that are the company’s hallmarks, and also his collegial relationship with these dancers in particular. I’d like to focus on his genius for extramural collaboration, which I believe has already made a significant impact on NYCB’s storied history – one that extends through George Balanchine at least as far back as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. I say Peck goes further than his legendary predecessors through an unprecedented talent for looking outside the world of classicism to create entirely new collaborations in which music and dance form an integral whole while retaining full artistic autonomy.

I’ll start with an extract from an interview with the New York Times dance critic Roslyn Sulcas:

JUSTIN PECK: I first heard “Rabbit” on WNYC, in a profile of a string quartet who had done these arrangements of his “Enjoy Your Rabbit” album. I was really taken with the music, found it really innovative and danceable, and I kind of kept it on my radar. I started experimenting with it during a few sessions at the New York Choreographic Institute, and Peter Martins [City Ballet’s ballet master in chief] was encouraging. When he asked me to do a piece for the company, I invited Sufjan to the ballet and told him what I wanted to do.

SUFJAN STEVENS: …I’d had requests before from choreographers, mainly college students doing liturgical modern dance. But I didn’t know anything about ballet. When I moved to New York, I had a ballet friend who dragged me to “Apollo,” and I hated it. Ballet seemed so anachronistic, so formal and classical and archaic and irrelevant to pop culture, the world of YouTube and reality television. I didn’t understand it.

But when Justin invited me to do the “Rabbit” ballet, he persuaded me to have an education and kind of curated my experience. He would say, come and watch this, watch that, then we would talk about it. “Agon” was when it really clicked for me. There is no pandering, there is nothing coy about it — it is so distilled and perfect, immaculate. That’s what convinced me that ballet was important. It is all about absence of self — there is no ego in it, even though there is extreme self-consciousness. Ballet is like proof of the existence of God, whereas my art is proof of the existence of me. It made me understand how selfish and boring it can be to make art that is all about yourself.

Not to take anything away from George Balanchine, but nobody had to sell Igor Stravinsky on ballet. Not only does Justin Peck have the choreographic chops and good taste in music necessary to create ballet of the first order, but he also has that strange quality of the impresario – that of the unleashed imagination combined with an intuitive sense of the popular – that sets him and today’s NYCB quite apart in the world of 21st century ballet.

Something important is happening in the building formerly known as the New York State Theater, and Justin Peck and his corps de ballet are at the epicenter.