Last week, after Justin Peck’s Rotunda (2020) and before Alexei Ratmansky’s Odesa (2017), Tiler Peck premiered her first choreographic work for the New York City Ballet: Concerto for Two Pianos. The David H. Koch Theater was packed and pulsing with excitement. We all love Justin’s and Alexei’s ballets, of course, but we were there for Tiler.
That night, Peck made history as the 100th choreographer commissioned by the Company and its 25th female choreographer. She joins a long list of luminaries, beginning with Ruthanna Boris in 1952, and continuing with such greats as Martha Graham, Alexandra Danilova, Twyla Tharp, and Pam Tanowitz. Peck is also the only female choreographer with work in the Company’s Winter 2024 Season. Those facts alone are reason for celebration, but so is Concerto for Two Pianos.
Peck came to dance naturally. Her mother owned a studio in California, so she grew up doing it all—jazz, lyrical, contemporary, hip hop. “Ballet was my least favorite,” she admitted to me when we talked before the premiere. But she had a knack for it, to put it mildly, and joined NYCB as a member of the corps de ballet in 2005, where she was quickly promoted to soloist in 2006 and principal dancer (where she remains) in 2009.
She came to choreography less naturally, she says, but I beg to differ. Though she grew up choreographing at her mother’s studio, it was mostly in other styles, rarely ballet. “I just didn’t trust in myself,” she said. But former NYCB principal dancer Damian Woetzel saw something in her and invited her to present a new work at the Vail Dance Festival in 2018 and then again in 2019. It turned out to be an opportunity for growth—one for which she is extremely grateful. “Had he not given me the opportunity, I don’t know that I ever would have pushed myself.”
Peck was then commissioned to create new works for the Boston Ballet and BalletX in Philadelphia in 2022, and Cincinnati Ballet and Northern Ballet in Leeds in 2023. She also curated the Turn It Out with Tiler Peck & Friends program at New York City Center. So by the time NYCB commissioned her, she felt ready. “I wasn’t scared,” she said. “I was, like, normal scared. Like how I get nervous before a performance. But I knew in the back of my head I could do this.”
Tiler Peck’s choreographic process
Peck said of her process, “It always starts with the music for me. That’s always my jumping-off point.” The first thing she did was look for the right piece of music. She has a soft spot for piano concertos, but wanted to find one that hadn’t been used too much and that she’d find interesting. When she heard Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, she “just thought wow. This is some extraordinary music…It grabs your attention from the very beginning.” The three movements had so many peaks and valleys, which would allow her to show “a range of emotion and color.” It was love at first listen.
Then she had to assemble a cast of dancers. She settled on nineteen—five soloists and seven corps de ballet couples, the most she’d ever worked with—feeling that the score’s “big music called for a lot of dancers filling the stage.”
And then she began to create. Peck gave herself ten days before the Nutcracker season began to create a first draft, and then she had about two more weeks leading up to the premiere to revise and edit while still rehearsing the pieces she would be performing this season. “I like working under pressure,” she said. “I like giving myself some sort of deadline. I feel like if you have too much time you start second guessing every single step, and then you start changing it, and sometimes I think it becomes worse the more you play with it.”
On Peck’s first day at the front of the NYCB studio, a dancer gestured to her pointe shoes and asked if she was going to keep them on. “I hadn’t even thought of it,” Peck told me, half laughing. “Of course I was going to keep them on because that’s how I would show them the steps. And then I thought to myself, I don’t think I’ve ever had a choreographer in the front of the room ever showing me the steps in a pointe shoe. And that to me was super fascinating!”
The shoe discussion aside, Peck felt the respect was there from that very first day. “Yes, I’m their colleague and friend, but they very much treated me like they did any other choreographer.”
But the upside of being a colleague and friend first is that she knows her dancer’s strengths and weaknesses and could use that in her choreography. “I didn’t always just play to their strengths,” she told me, explaining how she tried to push them out of their comfort zones and into greater artistry. “I used this time to hopefully help them grow.”
Along with enjoying watching the dancers improve under her guidance, Peck loved playing with the music. “Getting to make that sound visual in dance is really interesting to me. That’s how I choreograph. I’m like, ‘Oh this sounds like this, and that’s what the step comes out as.’”
Peck’s movement style is very much rooted in her classical ballet background but also pulls from the “motley crew” of other techniques she was trained in. “And you can do all of that in a pointe shoe, really. It’s limitless, what you can do.”
The world premiere of Concerto for Two Pianos
Concerto for Two Pianos—the longest and largest piece Peck has choreographed to date—begins with a bang. Literally. The clang of a chord. It also begins in medias res, the curtain rising on the seven couples already dancing, already spinning and lifting and dipping. They wear blue (Zac Posen’s beautiful costumes) and move against a canvas-tan backdrop.
Two soloists—India Bradley and Emma Von Enck—enter in their own shades of blue and dance their own shades of pluck, movements bright and leggy and easy to imagine on their choreographer.
Roman Mejia storms the stage with barrel turns reminiscent of Baryshnikov. Chun Wai Chan joins him for flawless pirouettes and matador-tinged movements. At one point, Mejia poses at the front of the stage while the women line up behind him. There is fawning. There is bravado. They are playing, when it’s rare to see NYCB dancers playing.
At first, Tiler Peck’s choreography seems to belong to Mejia, who is a force to be reckoned with. But then a woman in red (Mira Nadon) comes on stage, and it seems the piece belongs to her. It must be her story, we think, as she is the single red in the sea of blues. But what, exactly, is she telling us?
One of the strongest moments sees Nadon and Chan partnering at the front of the stage, spot-lit, while Mejia, Bradley and Von Enck dance in silhouette at the back. The trio moves like a memory, like something Nadon is thinking of while she leans back in Chan’s arms.
There are other moments, too…a dream sequence in a deep underwater blue (Brandon Stirling Baker’s lighting is exquisite)… a circle of men flexing and sliding… a diagonal line of upside-down women fluttering their feet… but we want them to keep going, to last longer than they do.
Concerto for Two Pianos is not narrative, but it is also not not narrative. There are so many moments we cling to, that seem to be going somewhere before fading away. And while its tone isn’t always cohesive, its musicality is impressive, the dancers’ performances truly joyful and the glimpses of Peck’s fresh voice worth sitting for.
When I asked Peck what she was looking forward to, she told me, “I think I’m most excited for the audience to see the dancers really dancing. I feel like that was my goal, to make something that these dancers love to dance and that showcases them.” Then she added, in a rare moment of vulnerability, “I do feel like classical ballet still has a way to move forward, and be exciting, and still use the vocabulary in an interesting way.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Tiler. And I think she will be an important part of that movement.
Concerto for Two Pianos will be performed as part of NYCB’s New Combinations program at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater on February 8, 14, 20 and 24.