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.