Tonight is an evening of firsts for New York City Ballet dancer Justin Peck. This weekend marks the first time the California native has stepped foot in Vail. And the first ballet he'll see performed on the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater stage will be his own.
It's also the very first piece that New York City Ballet MOVES will perform at this year's 24th annual Vail International Dance Festival, which kicks off tonight. Quite the accomplishment for the 24-year-old ballet corps member. Peck was commissioned to create two new ballets for New York City Ballet, including "In Creases," set to music by Philip Glass, which premiered at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on July 14 and will be performed for only the second time this evening.
In Saratoga Springs, the New York City Ballet's summer home, Peck watched from the audience as "In Creases" unfolded on stage, an experience he called "nerve wracking."
"It was definitely worse than when I debut in a role as a dancer," he said.
It was almost hard for Peck to watch the dancers because even though he trusts them "entirely," he still tends to look for the flaws.
"It's hard to enjoy my own work; I can't objectively consume it the same way an audience member seeing it for the first time might," he said.
But in the end, Peck was quite pleased with the performance.
"It was something I can feel proud of," he said. "I thought the dancers took on this distinct energy on stage that I hadn't witnessed till the performance."
And he hopes a similar passion electrifies the stage tonight, much like the lighting dancing in the skies above the Ford Amphitheater has many evenings this month.
"I hope that there's a little bit of a nervous energy amongst the dancers," he said. "I think it's going to have a real fresh feel to it."
In a New York Times review of the premier, critic Alastair Macaulay wrote predominately positive things, such as:
"The impression 'In Creases' leaves, though, is of a dreamscape that heightens the progress and colors of its score. And its sureness of construction is striking. Sharing a program with works by the far more experienced Benjamin Millepied and Christopher Wheeldon, it looks the most perfectly edited - the one that has the surest vision of what it means to be."
It's not surprising that Dance Festival Director Damian Woetzel opted to kick off the 2012 festival with something young. Year after year, he's hungry for new work to unveil.
"Peter Martins and I discussed not only having new works for Vail but also the excitement of new works in themselves," Woetzel said. "Justin's ballet is the newest ballet to the New York City Ballet repertoire, so it is interesting on many levels."
For the piece, eight dancers - four male, four female - take the stage with two pianos. The music is Philip Glass' Four Movements for Two Pianos, which he composed in 2008. This year, Glass turns 75, and the music world is celebrating his extensive and extraordinary body of work with performances around the country. As an aside, during the Saratoga Performing Arts Center 1985 season, Glass was the venue's first-ever composer in residence.
The title of the ballet, "In Creases," has two meanings, one that stems from the music and the other from what Peck tried to achieve with the choreography.
The music takes on this propulsive, relentless quality and has moments where it starts, then stops and starts up again and gets caught in a crease and gains momentum," Peck said. "(The name) also comes from what I wanted to do structurally with the choreography. To start out, I attempted to have the dancers consume as much space as possible, then moved on to how I could divide and fold or crease the space using the bodies of the dancers."
The dance was very much inspired by the score, though Peck describes the music as "bare bones" and said it offered him less guidance than what he typically works with. Having such a blank slate proved to be both a blessing and a curse.
"I did feel a bit exposed when originally choreographing it," he said.
The rest of tonight's program includes classic fare: "Sonatine," choreographed by George Balanchine and first premiered in 1975 with music by Maurice Ravel; "Red Angels," a four-dancer piece by Ulysses Dove that celebrates dancers' power and athleticism, to the tune of Maxwell's Demon, by Richard Einhorn - including a live music accompaniment by an electron violin; "Zakouski, "a ballet for two dancers set to four short works for violin and piano (choreography by Peter Martins); and "In the Night," with choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Frederic Chopin, one of the most important innovators for the piano, both in terms of composition and playing style. Look for Peck on stage in "In the Night."
Compared with the rest of the lineup, Peck said like the music, "In Creases" "has, aesthetically, a much more sleek, modern look to it."
For Woetzel, pairing something that was born just more than two weeks ago with a piece such as "Sonatine," which premiered in 1975, is a study in dance history.
"It is always fascinating to see how new ballets mix into the repertoire," Woetzel said. "At New York City Ballet, that really means contrast with the masterpieces of Balanchine and Robbins. What the audience experiences is a real sense of the arc of ballet, what has happened and what is happening now, and that in itself is a very engaging part of being at the performance. For a young choreographer, of course, it is aspirational, to have one's work on a program next to Balanchine's 'Sonatine' or Robbins' 'In The Night' as Justin will on Sunday is a gauntlet of sorts - a wonderful and inspiring challenge."
New York City Ballet MOVES will perform again Monday and Tuesday. During the course of the three evenings, not one piece repeats, Woetzel said.
"The range of repertoire that New York City Ballet MOVES brings to Vail is enormous - they are covering almost a century of choreographic invention," he said.
"After opening night, MOVES continues on to Monday, where we get cutting-edge work by William Forsythe with the dancers in Gianni Versace costumes, to Robbins' trailblazing ballet in silence 'Moves,' to Martin's 'Waltz Project,' which explores music by some of America's most important composers, including Philip Glass, John Cage and Lou Harrison."
And that's just the beginning. The festival continues through Aug. 11. And during that time, there's sure to be many other "firsts."
High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2984.