Justin Peck and his collaborators combine gravitational universes

A few months ago, Justin Peck, the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, entertained his baby girl with a set of building bloc...


A few months ago, Justin Peck, the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, entertained his baby girl with a set of building blocks as he listened to the first movement of Caroline’s a cappella “Partita for 8 Voices.” Shaw. He was thinking about how to approach densely packed music, layered with speech, vocal effects and wordless harmonies, when he noticed his daughter’s toy set contained eight shapes. Together they started moving the shapes to the beat of the music.

“We have found the structural model that starts the ballet!” Peck said, referring to “Partita”, his new piece for the New York City Balletwhich will premiere Thursday, the company’s delayed winter season opening night at Lincoln Center.

set to Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize winning composition and performed by eight dancers in sneakers, the ballet features brightly colored hanging fabric sets designed by Eva LeWitt, the daughter of artist Sol LeWitt, whose “Wall drawing 305was an inspiration for Shaw’s score.

“It really felt like a back-and-forth conversation, of Caroline incorporating text from Sol LeWitt’s instructional drawings, and then me interpreting this work and calling on Eva to create her own response to music and dance” , Peck said. “The whole experience feels like the most vivid thing I’ve been part of in terms of creative and artistic expression.”

In a joint video interview a week before the premiere, the three creators discussed their responses to each other’s work and the importance of practical settings and pedestrian elements for every aspect of ballet.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Justin, are you behind the project?

JUSTIN PECK Yes. When I first heard “Partita” after Caroline won the Pulitzer, I was totally blown away. Sometimes, as a choreographer, you’ll hear music and think, let’s choreograph it tomorrow. But with this work, I felt that I had to live with it, to listen to it regularly for several years. I consider it one of the most important compositions of the last decade, so I didn’t take it lightly.

In April of last year, I found the courage to reach out to Caroline, who I had worked with on small things. She was really supportive of the idea, and I felt like City Ballet was the place to do the work because dancers have such musical sensitivity.

How did you discover Eva’s work?

PICK While I was doing a lot of deep listening and researching Caroline’s process, I noticed that a lot of the lyrics were taken from LeWitt’s instructional drawings. Through this rabbit hole I came across Eva’s work and was immediately blown away by that too. You can feel his father’s influence a bit, but it’s so uniquely his own voice, and has a dimensionality and theatricality that I thought would work well in a live performance setting.

Caroline, “Partita” alludes to baroque dance suites in the names of its sections: Allemande, Sarabande, Courante, Passacaglia. Did you think of it as a dance score?

Caroline Shaw I didn’t imagine it literally being choreographed, but it was really visual and like I was choreographing with sound rather than dance.

When I wrote the piece, which spanned three summers, I was a freelance violinist and singer in New York City, and I was also accompanying dance classes all over the city. So all these counts and beats were swirling around in my brain at the time. I really fell in love with music again through dance.

I was playing a lot of baroque violin pieces at the time, and Bach uses all of these dance forms, so it was a great starting point. Each movement of “Partita” relates to the original baroque dance, but they are abstractions, containing seeds of those original meters and sensations, but rapidly going beyond. It was a playful experience with form and a conversation with the past.

Eva, were you influenced by the score? How did you approach the design?

EVA LEWITT I’ve done an exhibition at the ICA in Boston, and Justin really liked the asymmetrical and random quality of this work, so I took it as a kind of freedom to paint with sculpture and fabric. I wanted to give space to the dancers, to frame them, but also to be idiosyncratic with colors and spacing, and I was definitely influenced by the energy of “Partita”.

Gravity is very important in my work; the pieces really have to hang down, that’s what creates the shapes, defines the circles and shapes. It’s so connected to dance, to humans moving through space, and to voice as well. These gravitational universes are important to all of our art forms.

justin, does each dancer correspond to a voice in the score?

PICK Not exactly. I thought a lot about it and made a very careful and mapped text that deciphered each voice and how the dancers could hear it and count it. It was a level of preparation that I had never done before. There were times when I thought maybe a dancer would fit a certain voice, but it got too constricting. Vocally it’s eight individual voices, and I think choreographically it feels like eight individual dance voices.

In fact, from playing with the building blocks, I have notes that read “Harrison [Coll] is the lime green rhinoceros, Taylor [Stanley] is the yellow leaf”, and so on!

You’ve created a movement with a distinct quality of loose, grounded limbs that feels different from your previous work. Does it come from your sense of music?

PICK Yes, the music is so different from anything I’ve worked with before. But it also comes from what Eva created. There is so much to his work that is about the tension and harmony of line versus curve. This very simple and banal visual quality really influenced the choreography. There’s so much in there that’s geometric and has to do with those tensions and harmonies.

Why did you decide to put the dancers in sneakers?

PICK I went back and forth for a while on whether it should be in pointe shoes or sneakers, and decided that sneakers were right for me. The physical language reminds me of modern American folk dance, where I am able to draw influences beyond ballet and incorporate them into a dance language that feels very current and deeply personal to me as a New- Yorker. There’s a comfort and relatability that I think communicates a different experience for the audience.

SHAW I really like the decision to do it in sneakers because it’s related to the way I wrote the music. Everything comes from speech, and speech is not intellectual. I wanted to use natural ways of speaking, all the sounds we produce, just American voices, and turn that into music. It is something pedestrian, shaped into something else.

LEWITT I like this idea and the convenient settings to do something for the scene. Much of my work is made of fabric and plastic, and has an inherent influence, and I realized that I could create an environment for the dancers in which the scenery also had movement.

PICK The music, the dance, the design, everything seems to be in motion, never static. This is the quality we aim to achieve. We redouble our efforts on what makes live performances so great; that it happens in the moment, that you feel the energy that comes from the stage, from the performance. It’s the closest I’ve come as an artist to having that quality on all fronts.

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