The poetry of motion
Over the last few days, my daughter, who turns three in December, has become obsessed by a movie called Ballet 422. It’s a documentary, released earlier this year and now streaming on Netflix, about the creation of an original work for the New York City Ballet by dancer and choreographer Justin Peck. I hadn’t even heard of it until last week, and I cued it up for Beatrix mostly out of desperation: I was reaching the end of a long day that had encompassed visits to the library, a sushi restaurant for lunch, a bookstore, and two parks, and as usual, when it was time to make dinner, I was scrambling to find something that could keep her distracted. But the movie sucked her in from the very first shot—of dancers arriving for their morning exercises—and it never let her go. Since then, she’s asked to see again it multiple times, and we’ll sometimes end up watching it twice on the same day. And in retrospect, it’s the kind of movie that was made to hold her interest. There’s no narration, no talking heads, no grownup’s idea of a plot: just the camera calmly recording attractive people as they engage in intensely interesting creative work. (Documentaries, in general, seem like a promising avenue for the two of us to explore. An attempt to interest her over the weekend in Bering Sea Gold on the Discovery Channel didn’t go as well, but I’m tempted to see what she thinks of Happy People, Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s look at life in the Siberian taiga.)
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’ve written here before, perhaps at excessive length, about the oddly prominent role that ballet has assumed in my inner life. I’m not a dancer, or even much of a real balletomane, but there’s a thread in my thoughts about art that runs through The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, through Ballets Russes, the most moving documentary I’ve ever seen. And in the process, I’ve become increasingly convinced that ballet is the art form that tells us more than any other about the nature of art itself. Along with singing and oral storytelling, it’s the medium that requires the minimum amount of necessary equipment, aside from a functioning human body, but it can also blossom, step by step, into Diaghilev’s idea of the full gesamtkunstwerk, in which all the arts find unified expression. And it’s also the form in which art’s essential transience feels the most visible. Even if it’s preserved on film, or in the notes by the choreographer, a dance exists in the moment, leaving nothing but a memory behind, which I’m starting to feel is fundamentally true about all kinds of art, even those that seem superficially more lasting. I doubt that my daughter senses much of this—she’s more interested in all the pretty people, their movements, and their makeup—but as I watch her face as she watches it, I can’t help but reflect on the role that art plays in giving a shape to a life.
I’d also like to think that Beatrix is receiving a quiet education in the art of documentary filmmaking. Jody Lee Lipes’s movie is the kind of unobtrusive, absorbing work that is so easy to take for granted and so very hard to do well. Instead of imposing himself on the material, as a lesser director might have done, he holds himself—and us—at a slight distance, and the result is defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. We don’t learn anything about Peck’s background or his personal life, and we pick up information about the other participants on the fly. Everyone we meet is intently focused on the business at hand, and the camera takes it all in with a serene equanimity that allows us to forget how difficult it must have been to capture. In a profile in the New York Times, Lipes recalls how he had to work within considerable constraints:
The deadline to create the work gives the film a tautness that was reinforced by the filmmakers’ tight budget: They could afford only limited shooting. Mr. Lipes said his wife, Ellen Bar, a producer of the film, was especially helpful in guiding his choices, since she is a former City Ballet dancer and the dance company’s director of media projects.
“I would say, ‘Should we shoot today?’ ” Mr. Lipes recalled. “And Ellen would say, ‘This is the first time Justin is going to see the orchestra perform the piece; we have to be there.’”
In other words, Lipes’s film becomes an understated emblem of the exact kind of restraint and ingenuity that it celebrates. The “deadline” mentioned above refers to the fact that Peck had only a couple of months to put together his ballet: a hole had unexpectedly appeared in the company’s roster, and he was asked to fill it. Another movie might have used this detail to set up an artificial ticking clock, but Ballet 422 doesn’t go out of its way to emphasize it. Like dance itself, in which artistic self-effacement and discipline are channeled into the creation of overwhelming emotion on stage, the movie’s air of detachment becomes almost a fetish. And yet its closing scenes—in which Peck watches his premiere along with the rest of the audience, strips off his suit and tie, gets into costume, and joins the corps de ballet onstage for the last performance of the evening—are indescribably moving. This last sequence includes the only showy edit in the entire movie, as the image of a ring of dancers cuts to the matching circle of the fountain at Lincoln Center. From there, it moves to a view of the entire plaza, seen from far overhead, and as the credits roll, I always find myself thinking of my own life. I spent a memorable year in my twenties, not all that much younger than Peck, living just a short walk way from that fountain. And when I look away from the screen now, I see my own daughter dancing before it.