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Thursday, February 12, 2015

To the Pointe: Interview with Jody Lee Lipes, Director of Ballet 422

Posted By on Thu, Feb 12, 2015 at 2:13 PM

click to enlarge Justin Peck in Ballet 422 - MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • Magnolia Pictures
  • Justin Peck in Ballet 422

As a documentary filmmaker whose credits also include directing seven episodes of Girls, Jody Lee Lipes is no stranger to the creative process. So when he first met Justin Peck, New York City Ballet's 26-year-old rising star of choreography, he knew he'd come across something special. Lipes' newest film, Ballet 422, follows Peck as he produces an original ballet for one of dance's most prestigious companies in just two months. The film, which has been selected for the Tribeca Film Festival, hits Bay Area theaters tomorrow. We spoke with Lipes about the challenges of filming choreography, his relationship with his subject, and the film's surprise ending. 

How did you choose Justin and his story?

It's a really long story! The short version is that I saw Justin at a presentation at the Guggenheim Museum where he was discussing Year of the Rabbit, the first major work of his that was performed at Lincoln Center. I'm always trying to get better as a filmmaker so anytime I see an artist who is intelligent and interesting, I try to latch onto him or her. I was attracted to the way that Justin talked about his work. When I saw the premiere of Year of the Rabbit I really liked that too — and I'm not a big ballet fan, so it was refreshing. His work is unexpected, it's filled with ideas and the movement is unique and particular. There's a hint of narrative but it's not a clear narrative, so you feel like there's something going on beyond the edges of the frame. That's something I admire in art.

It also seemed that people who really know the history of ballet really respected him, that they thought he would grow. I wanted to tell the story of someone who will go on to have a substantial career, but I wanted to show him before he had reached that place where everyone thought of him as a master. I wanted it to be a film that's shot as it's happening, before he's accomplished what he's capable of. 
click to enlarge Jody Lee Lipes - MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • Magnolia Pictures
  • Jody Lee Lipes

How did he react when you told him you wanted to film him?

He was on board. The other dance film I've made, NY Export: Opus Jazz, is very stylized and cinematic, the complete opposite of this. This one is a vérité film. The previous film had all New York City Ballet dancers in it, so at NYCB there's a level of comfort and trust with me and Ellen (the producer), who danced there for 20 years. We didn't know we were making a feature film when we started, we just thought, 'Let's try this'. There wasn't that pressure initially. Justin was really surprised when I asked him if he wanted to look at the movie while I was cutting it. He literally had no idea it was a full-length film, because that's not how we started out. 

Do you think he was surprised because he stopped noticing you were there, as he got used to you?

A lot of the time he wouldn't notice me. It was also a quick shoot. We weren't there every single day. We shot for about 18 days, which is a pretty short amount of film for a vérité film. We had between 35 and 40 hours of film by the end, which is not much compared to most other vérité films. 

I like the fact that, because the subject was male, this film avoided a lot of the common narratives we hear about ballet, which mostly revolved around women and eating disorders. It was refreshing to see media about a male experience of the ballet world. Did you feel that way when you were making it? 

You're actually the first person who has brought that up. When people find out that I've done a few dance films, they often ask about eating disorders after a minute of conversation, when it seems like it's ok to bring it up. And it's true that there is a physical expectation for dancers because it's a physical art form. But everyone I know in ballet has a pretty healthy regard for eating and food. And I know just as many male dancers as female dancers, so I get both perspectives from dancers who are healthy and normal. 

Is it difficult to film choreography?

Yes. You'd never want to make a film that aims to present a dance as the theater does, because seeing it in the theater will always be better. So the struggle becomes, when can you go in tighter? When can you show movement from the 'wrong side' and still communicate it? How do you make the dance feel like it's integrated into the environment that people are in when they're in the real world, rather than just plopping people inside a big square? Those are the things that make it feel cinematic.

And in a way, with this film, the dance doesn't matter. I'm not trying to tell the story of the choreography — that's not what the film is about. The film is about working. My job isn't to show the choreography, it's to show how somebody learns to do a very specific physical movement and how Justin is teaching that. It's very much about Justin's expressions and his focus. It's very difficult to do justice to a ballet when you're shooting it on stage during a live performance, when you can't put the camera exactly where you want it to be. So the film emphasizes the process over the end result. I wanted the viewer to be in Justin's thought process and to identify with what he's feeling throughout the process.

He doesn't speak until about 10 minutes into the film. Was that purposeful?

It just happened — that wasn't an intentional choice. That was how the story was told at that point. There's a lot of information presented at the beginning of the film that didn't need to be verbal. There's other information later that is verbal, but at that point the story didn't need to have words. 

Did you get a sense of how Justin felt to have his work come to life?

Justin is the kind of person who is just on to the next thing, which I think is great. It's easy to wallow in what you've just done. For me, I'm happy that you care about this and you're writing about this, and I want people so see it, but I could be making another movie right now, and that would be awesome. So I admire that about Justin. I think that's why he makes so much work. 

So can you relate to Justin? 

Yes. I've had the privilege of working on some pretty substantial projects in my life, so I feel like I understand what he's going though in the film. I know the feeling of being a young guy and not knowing exactly how to negotiate a big opportunity, not knowing the politics of it. Especially when you're doing something on a bigger scale than you have before. So I feel that kinship with him in this story, for sure.

The ending of the film caught me by surprise. Did it catch you by surprise?

It was the biggest surprise for me. It wasn't how I imagined the film ending, but then I realized that it was a much better ending than what I'd conceived. It ended up being my favorite part of the film, the part that transcends the surface-level narrative of the film more than any other part, so I was happy with that surprise. 

Ballet 422 premieres tomorrow at Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Watch the trailer here and buy tickets here
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Sarah Stodder


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