Justin Peck, New York City Ballet's resident choreographer, unveils his 10th ballet for the company on February 2, and it's his biggest endeavor to date. The Most Incredible Thing—inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's dark fairy tale about a contest to find "the most incredible thing"—boasts sets and costumes by Marcel Dzama, a commissioned Bryce Dessner score, 19 movements, and Peck's largest cast yet. Between rehearsals, Peck talked about the new ballet, how his process has evolved, and balancing choreographing with dancing.
Ryan Wenzel: How did your new ballet come about? It's based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, which seems very different for you.
Justin Peck: It came about in a backwards way: I teamed up with my collaborators before we had an idea for what to do. First I joined up with Bryce Dessner. We had wanted to do a ballet together for a while. We looked at a bunch of different artists, went to see some shows, and Marcel had a show at his gallery, David Zwirner. It was clear that [Marcel] was interested in dance. There are a lot of dance elements in his work, and there's a storytelling quality to his aesthetic. We reached out, and he was enthusiastic from the get-go. We threw around a lot of ideas and ultimately landed on this Hans Christian Andersen short story, which is perfect for telling through ballet.
RW: What does The Most Incredible Thing look and sound like?
JP: Marcel's aesthetic is Chagall meets Maurice Sendak. We avoided any kind of modern-day technology, in support of ballet being its own experience. We wanted it to have a handmade feel as opposed to having, say, projections or computerized effects. The costumes are very elaborate. It's been a lot of fun for the costume shop to work on. We found moments to create pageants for the costumes, and at other times the choreography takes priority. As for the music, it's not Bryce trying to make his sound known. He took one melody from Scandinavian folk music, and the main duet is based on a Danish folk song. Lots of inspiration was taken from the machine sounds of a clock—percussion and rhythm.
RW: How does The Most Incredible Thing differ from past ballets you've done? What challenges did you face?
JP: The most obvious challenge was the scale. It's a 56-member cast: 45 New York City Ballet dancers and 11 School of American Ballet children. Some might think this was a challenge because it's my first narrative work, but it doesn't feel all that different from the past work I've done. In some of my ballets, there has been a loose narrative feel, and here there's just a more tangible storyline.
RW: This is the largest cast you’ve worked with, I’m guessing.
JP: Yeah, I mean, it doesn't get much bigger than that. [Laughs] Not many more people would fit on the stage! The cast size was dictated by the plot of the ballet. We need that many people in it to tell the story.
RW: Is this the first time you’ve choreographed on students?
JP: Yeah, I was super nervous to work with them at first. Then I got into the studio, and they were so focused and quick. They were able to pick up choreography just as quickly as the City Ballet dancers. And they’re cute.
RW: What dance outside New York City Ballet have you been watching?
JP: I've been seeing more theater, actually. I saw Lazarus, which I really loved, and the new Fiddler on the Roof, which was interesting, but I miss the Robbins choreography, which did so much to move the story forward. I did see American Dance Machine [at the Joyce Theater]. I thought that was really charming.
RW: You've been making ballets for almost eight years. How has the process of choreographing changed for you?
JP: I feel more enabled to explore my ideas because I have the platforms to do that now. When you’re first starting out as a choreographer, no one wants to give you a chance, or even studio space. The most generous people in the beginning are the dancers who are willing to give their time to try making a piece with you. I’m still figuring out what the right amount of output is. Since I’m still dancing, there are limitations on how much I can do.
RW: You said years ago that choreographing and dancing were equally important to you. Has that changed? Do you feel pressure to dance less and choreograph more?
JP: A little bit. Choreographing has taken a priority. [Ballet Master in Chief] Peter Martins is flexible about how much I dance each season, and that depends on my choreographic output. It's still nice to have time on stage and the day-to-day routine of a dancer, though. It keeps me involved with the dancers in class and in rehearsals. That's helpful as a choreographer. It's added advantage to understand them fully. And there's a lot to be learned from dancing existing works—knowing them from the inside out rather than just watching them.