Justin Peck, center, rehearses his new ballet with Ashley Bouder and Craig Hall. (Paul Kolnik photo)
Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit” has brought some new faces to the New York City Ballet’s performances since its premiere in October of 2012.
The 30-minute piece, Peck’s second work as a choreographer for the City Ballet, has its six participants dancing to an orchestrated adaptation of indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ 2001 electronica album “Enjoy Your Rabbit.” This collision of musical worlds has served to both introduce City Ballet fans to Stevens’ larger body of work, and Stevens’ fans to the much larger world of ballet.
“I think a lot of Sufjan fans were interested in this project, and as a result they got some good exposure to the New York City Ballet and dance in general,” Peck said recently while on vacation in Miami. “I think it’s kind of interesting — some [City Ballet fans] knew Sufjan’s music, and some didn’t, so for many it was kind of their first exposure to Sufjan Stevens’ work, too. [Stevens and orchestrator Michael Atkinson] did a great job with the music and everything, so people found themselves really enjoying that aspect of the ballet.”
Capital Region fans will get a chance to experience the piece at the City Ballet’s annual Saratoga Performing Arts Center residency, which takes place this year from Tuesday through Saturday, July 13. “Year of the Rabbit” will be performed at the Tuesday and Wednesday evening ballets, as well as the Saturday, July 13, matinee. Peck will be on hand for a pre-performance talk on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
'Year of the Rabbit' by the New York City Ballet'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 2 p.m. Saturday, July 13
Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs
How Much: $80-$30, $24 (lawn) (evening performances); $45-$35, $15 (lawn) (afternoon performance)
More Info: 584-9330, www.spac.org
San Diego native Peck, who has worked with the City Ballet for a decade as both a dancer and choreographer, first heard the orchestrated version of “Enjoy Your Rabbit” in 2008. The music immediately struck him as something he would like to choreograph to.
“I was a fan of [Stevens’] music, and I was aware of this project where they were sort of reimagining this electronic album of his into a string quartet version,” Peck said. “I heard that — that was the first time I heard the music, and I found it to be very danceable, so I put it in my back pocket for a future project. ... I started working on choreography for the company — I actually started the ballet in Saratoga; I started rehearsing it in the ballet last July.”
Initially, the piece was done with the New York Choreographic Institute, under the name “Tales of a Chinese Zodiac.” The original album by Stevens features 14 tracks and is based loosely around the animals of the Chinese zodiac.
“I listened to both the acoustic version and the electronic version heavily, to kind of see how the music evolved, and see if there was anything I could pull out of the electronic version,” Peck said. “It was good to have an overall understanding of the evolution of this piece of music.”
Peck’s final piece ended up using roughly half of the orchestrated adaptation of the album, arranged into seven movements with transitions added. The music’s unusual time signatures and rhythms ended up having a big influence on Peck’s choreography.
“A lot of the music is written in fives, sevens, 11s, so rhythmically it’s very challenging,” Peck said. “And then also the music requires musicians to use instruments in a very specific sort of way — it’s written for all strings, and there’s very unconventional ways that they play their string instruments that creates for a very interesting sound within the body of music. I think I wanted to really accent those details.”
The dancers themselves — Ashley Bouder, Teresa Reichlen, Janie Taylor, Joaquin de Luz, Robert Fairchild and Craig Hall — also were integral to the piece. In moving it from the New York Choreographic Institute to the City Ballet, Peck was able to hand-pick dancers for the dance that best suited his ideas.
“The dancers in the company I know very well and work very closely with, especially since I’m a dancer myself in the ballet,” Peck said. “A lot of them I’ve grown up with, and seen them dance, grow and develop over the last 10 years, so I think I have a really strong understanding of each individual dancer. When I hear a piece of music, I tend to envision specific dancers and movements, and that was the thought process.”
Stevens, who declined an interview with the Gazette, also was heavily involved in the process. Peck said relished the chance to work with a living composer on the choreography.
“I think he was very, very open to learning more about the art form, and I think excited by it as well,” Peck said. “I think it was a new avenue for him to explore, and I think we both enjoyed the collaboration of structuring the music for the ballet. He was very involved; he had great attention towards detail. We both got to a point where we were comfortable enough to be giving each other input — he wasn’t shy about giving me input with choreography, and I wasn’t shy about giving him input with the music, so it was a pretty healthy back-and-forth.”
The two are, in fact, collaborating on another ballet for the City Ballet, which will premiere May 8, 2014. This piece, which the two have only just begun working on, will be based on all-new music by Stevens.
“He’ll compose the music first — I always start with the music, that’s always been my choreographic process,” Peck said. “He’ll start working on some ideas, and we’ll develop it together; then once the music is solidified, I’ll start working in the studio with dancers. ... I think it will probably be even more involved — he’ll have even more attention towards the detailing, and I think that we’ll have to put a lot of trust in one another.”
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.