The ballet began in the best NYCB tradition, with the music, by contemporary composer Sufjan Stevens: and with the Chinese zodiac.
"Sufjan and I discovered we share the same Chinese zodiac sign," Peck explains, "the Year of the Rabbit. He created an album of electronic music, entitled Enjoy Your Rabbit, then rewrote it as string quartets. It grew into 13 movements, one for each Chinese zodiac sign, plus one called 'The Year of the Lord.'"
Stevens' work, which boldly crosses over from folk and pop to serious concert music, ranges from recursively meditative to insistently driving, combining repeated lyrical figures with propulsive rhythms and modernist harmonics. Peck discovered it over three years ago and grew determined to choreograph it.
"Peter Martins gave me complete freedom. I wanted something big, for 18 dancers, great for the grand scale of Lincoln Center, so I suggested to Sufjan that we orchestrate the string quartets." They decided on string orchestra, arranged by Mike Atkinson and overseen by Stevens.
Having first used the music from Stevens' Enjoy Your Rabbit in 2010 for a ballet he created at the New York Choreographic Institute (NYCI, an affiliate of NYCB that promotes the development of new choreog- raphers), Peck has expanded that work for his second NYCB commis- sion, in a true collaboration with the composer. "I felt comfortable enough with Sufjan to say, 'I need a musical transition here,' for example, 'between sections two and three.' Sufjan has no background in dance, but he took to it right away."
Peck's ballet uses seven of Stevens' 13 movements. His first work for NYCB, a 15-minute Philip Glass piano ballet called In Creases, premiered this past summer at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, in Saratoga Springs, NY. It employed sleek modernism, while Rabbit feels more romantic and "much more human, with an emphasis on community and camaraderie," says Peck. After five years dancing in the corps de ballet: he joined the Company at 19: he admires such qualities in Jerome Robbins' ballets, especially those that "showcase the corps and reward them for their hard work."
As for the ballet's intellectual underpinnings, "The basis in the Chinese zodiac is very loose," Peck explains, "but the signs interact. I play on that chemistry by adding fragments of movement that interrelate, micro-motifs that ripple through the ballet. For example, the music at times feels like a pursuit, with a predator and prey, giving it some danger. But I intend to have the ballet resolve in equilibrium, emotionally and balletically."
For Year of the Rabbit Peck has been working with Janie Taylor and Craig Hall, Teresa Reichlen and Robert Fairchild, and Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz, as well as a corps of twelve. "Ashley is taking over a section I made for the three- movement workshop version at the NYCI, but she will have a lot of brand-new movement. I also want to figure out how to use Tess' [Teresa Reichlen's] height and her physique to the best advantage. Janie Taylor has always been a favorite: I fell in love with her Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. And she's really interested in exploring new ideas in the studio."
Taylor calls Peck "super-talented." "Justin already has his own style," she says. "His port de bras is different than the standard, and he experiments with changes in arm direction, using different speeds. He knows what he wants to create, and I find that challenging: trying to make myself look different from how I look in the work of other choreographers."
Despite Peck's interest in community, Taylor notes, "I don't feel it looks like Robbins. I find it more mathematical and abstract. The zodiac is built into the score, and Justin has ideas about some of the animals, but in an abstract way, not necessarily in images that you'll recognize. His choreography can be very playful, but in a subtle way: witty without being 'jokey,' which is a difficult line to walk. And his work's intellectual side doesn't take away from the emotional impact created by the dancers interacting with each other."
Even with Peck's choreographic ambitions, he doesn't yearn to make dances full time, believing that everything he learns as a dancer will help his own ballets. "I'm 24, and I have ten or fifteen years of dancing ahead of me. I very much still want to dance."
Though a corps member, he has danced several principal roles, developing into a dependable and gallant partner, whether strutting dignifiedly with Reichlen in Robbins' In the Night or lofting Tiler Peck in romantic embraces in Balanchine's Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (the Pecks are not related). Romantic roles especially appeal to him. He loves Liebeslieder Walzer's psychological richness and choreographic challenges: "maybe my favorite ballet I'm dancing now," he says.
In Creases, which comes to New York in 2013, displays Peck's originality, his influences remaining fairly invisible. Nevertheless, he learns constantly from dancing Robbins and Balanchine and loves "to watch Balanchine's work from the fourth ring and study his maneuvering choices within a ballet."
"I'm trying to create ballets that I would enjoy seeing," Peck says. "My choreography is very classically based. I like graceful and elegant partnering that gives an illusion of ease instead of emphasizing difficulty. I don't want to make something 'contemporary' or 'trendy,' because ballet doesn't progress on one track: it can branch out in many directions, and as Balanchine showed, there's always room for pure classicism and more subtle alterations of it."
Nevertheless, Peck's movement can also look modern and exciting. In a sequence from In Creases, the dancers lie down while one performer at a time high-steps through them in a balletic broken- field football drill, an emblem of his belief that "ballet dancers are among the greatest living athletes."
Peck's initial work at the NYCI led to his receiving the Institute's first year-long choreographic residency for the 2011-2012 season, an honor that has made him eager to show his work. "I think I have much to share in the ways of crafting dances. I want to make many ballets while I'm still dancing, and I have such great friends and colleagues to work with. NYCB has a great lineage of choreographers, and I want to be part of that."
And what might George Balanchine think of a ballet called Year of the Rabbit? "Actually," Peck says, "Mr. B was also born in the Year of the Rabbit, and I'm proud to be dancing and making ballets in the House of Balanchine."
Jay Rogoff is dance critic for The Hopkins Review, a contributor to Ballet Review, and the author of The Art of Gravity (LSU, 2011), a book of dance-inspired poetry.