There is something that has been on my mind, but I’ve been too timid to declare it. It’s not exactly revolutionary, revealing, or remarkable, but in the interest of documenting my thoughts, it must be stated (and adequately mused on, let’s be real) here.
Justin Peck and Sufjan Stevens are the modern George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky.
There, I said it. In big letters, too. Okay, okay, before you go and roll your eyes and point out all of the differences in style and situational relationships, hear me out. I don’t mean to say that these choreographer/composer relationships are identical, but simply that Peck and Stevens’ partnership excites me in a similar way I could imagine a 25-year-old bunhead living in the mid-20th century would be excited by that of the late great(s) Balanchine and Stravinsky. I should add one last post-pre-text disclaimer to this preface and state that these are all very personal opinions of mine. Bear with me…
One of Peck’s first choreographic endeavors at NYCB resulted in his Year of The Rabbit, an iconic piece set to Sufjan Stevens’ 2001 electronica album Enjoy Your Rabbit. One of Balanchine’s earliest works, Apollo, also marked his first collaboration with classically alternative composer Igor Stravinsky.
Stevens and Stravinsky share more than the double consonant start to their last names. Stravinsky made a name for himself as a musical revolutionary by changing the way people saw rhythmic design. Similarly, Stevens is known for his irregular time signatures and variation of genre and style.
There are endless parallels to be drawn between the two choreographers as well. Peck and Balanchine share a propensity to utilize the corps de ballet, emphasizing the strength of a body of dancers and creating architecture on stage. The two use a similar vocabulary and technique, pushing dancers to extend their limbs fully and consume the stage. I think the most essential comparison, though, is that both Peck and Balanchine are of the moment; well, of their moment.
For Balanchine, “of the moment” changed from the sweeping romanticism of Serenade in the ’30s to the paired down black and whites in the ’40s to ’50s Americana with Western Symphony, Square Dance, and Stars and Stripes. Justin Peck’s moment is this one, and he is certainly taking hold of it. His ballets seem to always be just what the audience doesn’t know they need. In 2014, Peck’s lively Everywhere We Go set to an original cinematic score by Sufjan Stevens marked the next major collaboration between the two artists, awaking even New York audiences with it’s contagious energy. In 2015, Peck paired up with street artist Shepard Fairy to create Heatscape for The Miami City Ballet, using the city’s colorful backdrop to weave culture into the ballet. Just last year, Peck and Stevens worked together yet again to create In The Countenance of Kings at San Francisco Ballet. Though all I’ve seen of it is the video below (at least 12 times, mind you) it’s already one of the best pieces of music and choreography I have ever experienced.
So when I hear Justin Peck and Sufjan Stevens are at it again, their newest collaborative work The Decalogue premiering in just a week, I can’t help but imagine myself several generations back, giddy over the news of a new Balanchine/Stravinsky ballet.
In his February interview with the Chicago Tribune, Peck mused on the importance of relationships between choreographers and living artists:
“What’s always interested me the most about ballet is it’s this great opportunity for many different artistic mediums to come together to create a cohesive experience,” Peck said. “I think the future of ballet, as I would see it, is to continue the conversation between all these different worlds and have ballet be the platform for these different conversations. … That for me is what makes it so exciting and universal. There’s something for everyone to get out of it. I think the art form starts to fade when we forget that.”