The Joffrey Ballet continues to add big-ticket draws to its repertoire, most notably from young and exciting choreographers with mainstream appeal. But none of them are as prodigious as Justin Peck.
At just 29, Peck is the boy wonder of classical and contemporary ballet, the subject of a popular documentary called Ballet 422, and only the second resident choreographer in New York City Ballet's almost 70-year history. On top of all that, he's a soloist in the company. Pulling double duty as a dancer and a choreographer, he has increasingly found himself negotiating a tight schedule to accommodate the people (and companies) who hope to benefit from his current status.
"Game Changers," the latest program of mixed works from the Joffrey, is an appropriate title, if only because Peck is legitimately a once-in-a-generation talent. Year of the Rabbit, his collaboration with musician Sufjan Stevens, is one of three works in a program that includes Christopher Wheeldon's Fool's Paradise and Wayne McGregor's Infra—the latter two pieces are both exquisite, yet they've appeared in previous programs by the Joffrey. Still, the show stands out because Year of the Rabbit so magnificently highlights Peck's youthful, adventurous aesthetic. He has a knack for conceiving all kinds of intricate geometric formations, at times robust and others understated, but none of them pretentious.
Year of the Rabbit dates back to 2012 and is rife with frenetic, lively pacing. It's set to Stevens's astrology-inspired electronic song cycle Enjoy Your Rabbit, which gets a classical rendering here with a live performance by the Chicago Philharmonic. The string section is often screechy and piercing, like an irrepressibly jumpy bunny, darting from one end of the room to the other. The dancers channel a similar energy, leaping through space with bright smiles plastered to their faces. It's playful, teasing, excitable—executed with equal parts grace and meticulous timing. Performing the piece for the first time, the Joffrey pulls it off: it seems tailor-made for the company, which, historically, has always valued the personality of its dancers more than the technique.
At one point, an encounter between dancers Dylan Gutierrez and Jeraldine Mendoza recalls two wide-eyed lovers flirting with each other. It felt like an indie movie—I kept getting the impression that the inspiration came not from anything dance-related, but from Peck's Instagram feed. I'm speculating, of course, but that would seem appropriate given his age—an asset for ballet in general. v