Although I don’t remember seeing the first 421 Ballet movies, I found the 422nd entry in the franchise to be remarkably accessible. Now that I’ve gotten that horrendously unfunny joke out of the way I can at least echo a similar sentiment in the way the documentary Ballet 422 indoctrinates outsiders into its tightly controlled world of professional dance. As if the film were a triple digits sequel for a franchise that’s been running strong since 1948 (when the New York City Ballet company where it’s set was established), the world it depicts is already well-established & lived-in. Instead of explaining the art of ballet as a whole, however, the film is smart to remain pinpoint-specific. This is not a film about ballet, but about the production of a specific ballet and that specificity allows it to reveal more about the artistry as a whole than broader strokes ever could.
Ballet 422 documents a world in which all of the participants are already on the same wavelength, communicating abstract ideas to each other almost wordlessly as they work together to create a new ballet. It’s strikingly intimate. The central subject is Justin Peck, a 25 year old dancer from the New York City Ballet’s Corps de Ballet (layman’s term: background dancers). Although Peck has been a dancer with the Corps for seven years, he’s still a relative youngster as far as choreographer goes (maybe? I’m guessing there; sounds young to me) and the film follows him as he pieces together the company’s 422nd production in just a few months’ time. There’s a mostly dialogue-free fly on the wall approach to documenting these few months, which is entirely appropriate for an art form that is so physical, so visually based. It’s a rare treat to actually watch the ballet culminate slowly on film without its machinations being described by needless voiceover. After Peck’s production hits the stage, he immediately returns to his secondary role in the Corps de Ballet. It’s an oddly sad, abstractly affecting moment that the film allows to remain open to your own interpretation.
Ballet 422 sidesteps interacting with ballet’s historical or critical significance as an art form & instead reduces the dance into its most basic elements: music & movement. There’s a little insight into the physical tax, the backstage primping, and the politics in the interactions between the dancers & musicians involved in the production being documented, but those moments are mostly fleeting. The real meat & potatoes of the film is when the dancers are talking shop without talking at all. There’s a physical communication at the heart of Ballet 422 that reveals a great deal about the physical communication of ballet itself. It’s fascinating stuff without being flashy or pedantic. Like the ballet documented in the film, Ballet 422 is simple, straight-forward, and effortlessly elegant.