Jody Lee Lipes makes his feature length directorial debut with Ballet 422, a hands-off documentary in the style of Frederick Wiseman. Like Wiseman, Lipes acts as a fly on the wall, refraining from influencing the narrative. There are no sit down interviews and only a few intertitles to explain the dynamics of the company. His subject is New York City Ballet dancer Justin Peck as he crafts the company’s 422nd new piece. Though stylistically appealing, Ballet 422 turns a cold eye on its subjects, never fully allowing its audience to gain emotional access. Lipes offers up a smattering of the various facets that make a performance possible: costume design, lighting crew, pit orchestra, choreography. But at just 75 minutes, his documentary is too short to really delve into any of these components. The film glides from beginning to end, checking off all the proverbial boxes but never managing to resonate.
Director: Jody Lee Lipes
Producers: Ellen Bar, Anna Rose Holmer
Cinematographers: Nick Bentgen, Jody Lee Lipes
Editor: Saela Davis
Cast: Tiller Peck, Sterling Hyltin, Justin Peck, Amar Ramasar
Premiere: April 19, 2014 – Tribeca Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 13, 2015
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
We learn that Justin Peck is one of 90 dancers with NYCB (and a low ranking one at that) but has been selected to choreograph a piece featuring three of the best performers in the company. It’s telling that these dynamics need to be clarified by title slides. Aside from their mention in writing, there is no manifestation of these politics in the interactions between characters. We never see the seasoned dancers resent their younger company member as he directs them onstage. We do not witness the dancers complain about their uncomfortable costumes. Not once does the practice pianist ever roll his eyes as Pecks commands them to restart once again. Maybe Lipes doesn’t show these interactions because they never happened, but it seems very suspicious that the insanely stressful world of ballet doesn’t create any tension that gets captured on screen. The closest Ballet 422 comes to conflict happens late in the film, right before Peck’s work premieres. He asks the conductor if he can speak directly to the orchestra, a move that clearly defies existing power dynamics. But this is the sole source of tension in the film, and it’s a brief one. After a moment’s pause, the conductor allows Peck to broadcast his message. Is there really no drama?
Though we may not know the names or titles of the people in Frederick Wiseman’s films, he does present us with fully formed characters who have personalities beyond the work that they do (think of the animated docent from his latest National Gallery). Unfortunately, Lipes subjects are hollow, mechanical: they are dancers who never seem to experience joy, stress, disappointment, or nerves. Peck is the protagonist of this film and we know little about him. He appears button-lipped and composed, not once revealing doubt or fear. About halfway through the film, the camera crew follows him home after a long day in the studio. Instead of filming personal details of his apartment or watching him do something outside of his profession (does the guy ever eat?), Lipes captures him sitting at his desk and sketching out choreography. Audiences learn nothing new from their exposure to Peck’s intimate surroundings.
But maybe this is Lipes’s own subtle commentary on the ballet world. Just as his film is sterile, so is the cutthroat world of professional dance. Even the smallest decisions are calculating (should the dancer take one more step? should the hem on the costume be slightly shorter?). This attention to micro-decisions emphasizes the painstaking process of crafting a ballet. And though Lipes documents the process, he fails to capture the subtleties that contribute to fully-formed characters. Audiences have no concept of how these people might act outside of the ballet world. Or even what their relationships are within the ballet world. There is no chumminess, no sense of collective pride. But if Lipes does indeed view the ballet world as a cold, calculating microcosm of perfection, his film reflects that.
What really makes Ballet 422 fall flat is that the film is secretly boring. Ballet is one of the most well-documented—and dynamic—art forms and Lipes’ film offers no new perspective. Audiences thirsting for a dance film would be better off to turn to Wiseman’s own documentation of ballet (he has directed two different documentaries on the subject during his career) or even the work of Norwegian documentarian Kenneth Elvebakk (His 2014 documentary, Ballet Boys, is a truly delightful film about three teenage boys trying to become ballet dancers). Like its protagonists, Ballet 422 does little to encourage audiences to invest in its story.