In the early Noughties there was a Hollywood subgenre (by which I mean a few cult movies, each with terrible sequels) about ballerinas who shake off their classical shackles and liberate the cool girl within. The crown jewel is Center Stage, in which an aspiring prima sticks it to her ballet masters after they affront her with some light criticism of her turnout. She’s not some faceless, uptight swan! She’s a free spirit who dances for fun, as signalled by the presence of not one but two Jamiroquai songs on the soundtrack.
When Tiler Peck strutted on screen to James Blake’s ‘Buzzard & Kestrel’ in the opening minutes of The Barre Project, a new film she’s put together with the choreographer William Forsythe, I wondered if she might be trumpeting the same hokey message. Peck is a superstar of American ballet — a beautiful, accomplished performer who has, incidentally, bemoaned her own less-than-perfect turnout — and her appearance in this lockdown-inspired livestream is the latest in a media blitz that includes TV roles, a children’s book and a popular Instagram Live series (#TurnItOutWithTiler). Fun is her brand.
But missteps are rare for Peck, either on stage or off, and her performance here underscores how very in control a dancer has to be to let her hair down. She’s a fab match for Forsythe in that sense; he’s been pushing ballet to new heights of exuberance for 40 years. To be clear, their film isn’t a narrative venture but a recording of a new work spliced together with footage of its creation. Forsythe choreographed the routine via Zoom, with Peck and her three co-stars rehearsing remotely before uniting in person to film it at La Mirada Theatre in California.
Like Harald Lander’s Études, the 1948 production that brought the ballet barre on stage, The Barre Project harnesses the classroom instrument as a central prop. It’s a shoutout to all the performers out there toiling away in the studio while theatres remain closed, though the exercises here move beyond the usual repertoire to torque, lurch and jut — high-octane manoeuvres that swerve one way only to double-back on themselves, often a few beats later than expected. The tone is zippy and stylish, with a glint of mischief. Shot head-on, with frills-free staging, it’s a nice departure from the wave of high-concept dance films released since the start of the pandemic.
Peck slinks through her phrases with feline exactitude. Fouettés and other showpieces draw her away from the barre, but it’s never long before she shoots back into its arms. She hits her highest notes in the second movement, a lyrical section awash in spongy extensions. Other bright spots include a crackerjack solo from Lex Ishimoto — a So You Think You Can Dance winner with a gift for eking out the hangtime between counts — and a bouncy trio that sends the men of the cast toggling between sharp complementary poses.
The last section is the beefiest, a leap-heavy quartet set to a throbbing backbeat (another Blake track, one of five that feature). Peck and Brooklyn Mack (formerly of Washington Ballet) step out for a salsa-inspired spin, the only point where the performance stumbles. Something about their flirty shimmies and her surprise costume change feels stilted (and weirdly reminiscent of the climactic ballet in Center Stage). But it’s not long before we’re back to the panache we started with. The final phrase is a joy: the dancers are teamed in twos, one pair framing the other as they prance forward and backward, the whole thing crafted in pleasing symmetry. Their bounding steps, delivered with playful glances, recall Playlist (Track 1, 2), a springy crowd-pleaser Forsythe choreographed for English National Ballet in 2018.
Snippets from the team’s online rehearsals show a glimpse into Forsythe’s creative process, which involves decoding the ‘architecture’ of the music to tap into its depth, scale and shape. If Covid has normalised one thing, it’s giants of industry beaming into your living room from laughably low-tech settings (in Forsythe’s case, a garage in Vermont with dozens of exercise ropes dangling from the rafters). The footage has all the unflattering angles and awkward pauses we’ve come to associate with video conferencing, and it’s equal parts endearing and frustrating. The creativity at work here is definitely laudable, but it also reminds me how much I can’t wait for the dance world to return to normal.