New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck: ‘Trump’s win changed the whole arc of the piece’

<span>Leap of faith … New York City Ballet’s Rotunda.</span><span>Photograph: Erin Baiano</span>
Leap of faith … New York City Ballet’s Rotunda.Photograph: Erin Baiano

When Justin Peck was a teenage ballet dancer, “just a little punk kid, trying to make my way”, he wrote a letter to a musician he admired, the singer-songwriter-producer Sufjan Stevens. He’d heard an orchestral suite Stevens had written, The BQE, and thought this was perfect music for dance. “So I just wrote: ‘Hey, if you would ever want to collaborate or, you know, make a dance or make a ballet, let me know.’ And of course, I didn’t hear back.”

But here I am, talking to Peck on a video call about his new show, entirely set to the music of, you’ve guessed it, Sufjan Stevens, specifically his 2005 album, Illinois. Not such a pipe dream after all, it turns out. Billed as “a new kind of musical”, Illinoise (as the stage version is titled) has no dialogue, but a story told through song lyrics and the dancers’ movement, “almost like a silent film”, says Peck.

Illinoise is not the first collaboration between Peck and Stevens, who were introduced by a mutual friend some years after the letter. By that point, Peck was no longer a little punk kid but America’s choreographic wunderkind, made resident choreographer at New York City Ballet at 26, where he was already a dancer. He has been touted as an heir to Jerome Robbins; a maker of beautiful, technical, highly musical dance that is also fresh and youthful, rooted in classicism but decidedly modern. Peck’s dancers, who might wear sneakers instead of pointe shoes, or dance gender-neutral roles, are as likely to move to music by Bryce Dessner of the National or French electronic band M83 as to Aaron Copland or Stravinsky. In Peck’s work, the bodies on stage seem like real young people, with that much prized 21st-century quality: authenticity.

Considering he’s the most lauded American ballet choreographer to emerge this century, it’s surprising that Peck’s work has hardly been seen in the UK (San Francisco Ballet brought one of his pieces to London in 2019), but if you have seen Bradley Cooper’s sailor dance in Maestro or Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, or even Jennifer Lawrence as a ballerina turned spy in Red Sparrow, then you’ve seen Peck’s work. And there will be a chance to see more when New York City Ballet comes to London in March, with Peck’s 2020 piece Rotunda sharing a bill with UK premieres from Pam Tanowitz, Kyle Abraham and a classic by NYCB’s co-founder George Balanchine.

Rotunda is a good example of what Peck’s become known for. An abstract one-act ballet, it’s set to music by contemporary composer Nico Muhly, in a work Peck says “feels almost like a math equation, even though it’s so beautiful”. Performed in what looks like practice gear, it’s a piece, says Peck, about “the process and repetition of the dancer’s craft”. The dance meets the rhythm and structure of the music with exactitude; there’s speed and athleticism but an easy, unforced quality, too. It feels like a community of dancers whose steps emerge with spontaneity.

That sense of community is also in Illinoise, which features a group of people sitting round a fire sharing their stories. “It speaks to the origins of theatre, gathering round the campfire, the sort of magic that comes with the light and heat, and [saying]: ‘OK, let’s entertain one another,’” says Peck, who developed the scenario with Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury. Stevens was less involved: “He’s had a really hard year,” says Peck, referring to the death of Stevens’s partner Evans Richardson, and his being diagnosed with the autoimmune condition Guillain-Barré syndrome. “He’s had to work to regain his ability to walk.”

Whether it’s conscious or not, community has always been the theme that runs through Peck’s work. “I think it’s because I’ve struggled so much, like: ‘Where do I belong? What is my community?’ So I feel like I’m always trying to build it.”

Peck grew up in a “sleepy surf town” north of San Diego, where he was always restless. “I didn’t feel like I connected with a lot of people and I had, I would say, a very lonely childhood and not a lot of friends.” His mum was born and raised in Argentina but her roots are in Ukraine. His dad was a New Yorker reluctantly transplanted to California. Peck went to a huge, sports-focused high school, “where it was very easy to get lost. So I was this lost boy in this world that was sort of terrifying. I don’t want to feel like that again and I don’t want other people to feel that.”

Every summer, however, Peck’s dad would take the family to New York for a week to sponge up culture. They’d see a lot of theatre, and Peck took up tap dancing, inspired by Savion Glover in hit musical Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk. He got involved in local theatre and then ballet. “Ballet was kind of the last stop, so it’s ironic I’ve fallen into this world. I feel like an outsider, like it’s not really my thing, but, um, it is.”

It definitely is. Peck got a place at the School of American Ballet at 15, and in New York found where he belonged, back where his father’s family came from. His grandfather was civil rights activist James Peck, who took part in the Freedom Rides challenging segregation in the south in the early 60s and was jailed more than 50 times, Peck tells me with pride. There’s not a huge amount of politics in Peck’s work, although his piece The Times Are Racing was made during the 2016 election campaign. He tells how in one scene a ballerina climbed on to a group of people “and she stands there triumphantly. And I was thinking: ‘Oh, it’s sort of like a tribute to our next president, Hillary Clinton.’ It was going to be this iconic thing,” he says. And then the next day Trump’s win was announced. “It changed the whole arc of the piece,” says Peck. “We decided that the next motion would be for her to fall and be swallowed up.” The final work turned into a piece about protest and freedom of speech, the right to organise collectively “and find the power in that assembly and that sense of community”, says Peck, using that word again.

Will he have to make a sequel now Trump is back in the running? “Oh God, I don’t want to think about that,” he laughs, shaking his tousled head, a touch of the young Adrien Brody about his features. Would another Trump presidency affect his working world, the ballet, the theatre? “It does feel like we’re able to exist in this bubble of art and dance-making, but even that has the potential to be threatened,” he says. “I just think it would create a further divide in this country that will ripple through in ways I can’t even fathom.”

Peck is a fixture at New York City Ballet, but he’s always looking for new, unpredictable projects. One of the things that attracted him to Sufjan Stevens’s work is that he’s not an artist who stays in a single lane, and Peck is the same, deftly leaping from choreographing a music video for the National (which he also directed) to doing Carousel on Broadway, an advert with Dolly Parton or a fashion show for Opening Ceremony. He recently co-choreographed a show based on Buena Vista Social Club with his Cuban-American wife, Patricia Delgado. Maybe we’ll even get to see more of him in the UK. He’d love Illinoise to come here. “I just think it’s the kind of show audiences there would really connect with,” he says, a chance to expand his community, you could say. “I hope that it can happen.”

Rotunda is part of New York City Ballet Mixed Bill, at Sadler’s Wells, London, 7 to 10 March. Illinoise is at Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2 to 23 March.