2014 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmaker Profile: Jody Lee Lipes (Director – ‘Ballet 422’)

Cinematographer and documentarian Jody Lee Lipes crafts an intimate, fly-on-the-wall documentary offering a rare peek into the highly-guarded world of professional ballet. The film shadows Justin Peck, the 25-year old choreographer of the New York City Ballet, as he undertakes the Herculean task of creating the company’s 422nd original piece while simultaneously fulfilling his role as a Corps de Ballet member.

Lipes chronicles Peck’s creative process from its embryonic stages to its highly anticipated premiere, quietly observing as he balances a roster of musicians, designers, and dancers from this famed institution. ‘Ballet 422‘ is a powerful celebration of the skill and endurance of Peck and his fellow NYCB dancers—as well as those who remain hidden in the wings.

Anticipating ‘Ballet 422‘ Screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival we profile the film’s Director Jody Lee Lipes.  The film screens as part of the World Documentary Competition on Saturday, April 19Tuesday April 22Wednesday, April 23 and Sunday, April 27, 2014 in New York City.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Ballet 422’ at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival – HERE

As a Director & Cinematographer, describe how you balance each role while maintaining the integrity of your original aesthetic vision?
When I’m working as a director or cinematographer on a verite documentary, aesthetics are the last thing on my mind, it’s really all about storytelling and capturing what’s happening in front of me.  Sound is a huge part of that process.  If a subject whispers across the room, the ability to hear that and react to it can really shape the story.  I also feel that being patient and calm leads to the best material.  The famed documentarian Albert Maysles once told me, “Don’t worry if you miss something, it will happen again, and it’s always better the second time.” It’s important to relax, not over think it, and get out of your own way.  Once you feel you’ve captured something interesting, you can fall back on grammar and collect material to help the scene edit together.

New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck prepares for the premiere of Justin Peck's 'Paz de la Jolla'.  Courtesy of Ballet 422/New York City Ballet

New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck prepares for the premiere of Justin Peck’s ‘Paz de la Jolla’. Courtesy of Ballet 422/New York City Ballet

Specific to your role as Cinematographer, how did you approach filming the actual dancing?
I think I speak for Nick Bentgen (co-DP on Ballet 422) when I say that shooting a crowded ballet rehearsal is still the hardest situation we’ve come across in verite filmmaking.  Trying to distill a story from the dozens of voices, endless repetition, and spatial limitations of a room filled with people moving in unexpected ways as you do your best to avoid yourself in the reflection of huge mirrored walls, is very difficult.  Often I leave the room without knowing what I’ve got because there are so many ways to take it.  Saela Davis, the editor, and I tried our best to make all of the scenes about one thing as much as possible, so it becomes a task of whittling down the material so it’s simple and clear.  The more people in the room, the harder it is to find that one thing, that one interaction that moves the story forward or says something new to the audience.

For this film I was less focused on capturing the finished ballet Justin was creating, because for me ballet is an art form that should exist on the stage.  This film is about the process, and witnessing the search for the end result.  That’s what’s most interesting to me.

Justin Peck is just 25 years old yet acts as a choreographer for the New York City Ballet, can you give us a background as to his own credentials regarding such a prominent position?
Justin was part of the Company’s Choreographic Institute, and he excelled there.  Peter Martins, the Ballet Master in Chief of New York City Ballet, handpicked Justin and gave him the opportunity to make a short work on City Ballet dancers (who are some of the best in the world).  Peter has continued to put Justin forward as a choreographer at the Company, and because of that exposure, Justin’s work is beginning to be recognized and performed on a world scale.  His career is only just beginning, and one of his new ballets is scheduled to premiere at New York City Ballet in May.

Choreographer Justin Peck in rehearsal with New York City Ballet principal dancers Sterling Hytlin, Tiler Peck & Amar Ramasar. Courtesy of Bellet 422/New York City Ballet

Choreographer Justin Peck in rehearsal with New York City Ballet principal dancers Sterling Hytlin, Tiler Peck & Amar Ramasar. Courtesy of Ballet 422/New York City Ballet

How were you first introduced to Justin?
In 2012, Ellen Bar, producer of Ballet 422, was doing a Works & Process program with Justin at the Guggenheim for his ballet Year of the Rabbit. Justin had Principal dancer Tiler Peck perform some of a movement on stage. She went through it, and then he got onstage and corrected her.  He was using all of this language that was very clear and concise, but not something that I’d ever associated with a choreographer and a dancer.  I was in the audience and I was shocked because he’s so young and he seemed so confident, and totally unaware of the hundreds of people watching him.  And then she did the movement again, and it was totally different even though the steps were exactly the same.  He went back to this interview with Ellen, and I thought to myself, It’s so fascinating that this guy is so focused and so clearly knows what he wants. It’s like watching a master filmmaker work with a veteran actor. I knew that I wanted to get to know Justin better, and try to capture this process in it’s entirety.

Describe the position of New York City Ballet in the scope of international Ballet prominence? How would you describe its philosophy towards the art of Ballet?
City Ballet is one of the most respected dance institutions in the world.  They stand out because they have this incredible repertory of ballets by the founders, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, but they are also focused on pushing the art form forward by fostering choreographers and creating new ballets.  As far as I know, they create more new works than any company in the world.

In your experiences as a Director, as well as a Director of this specific film, how does Justin’s approach to his responsibilities as Choreographer relate to your own approach as a filmmaker of ‘Ballet 422’?
Justin was at a very particular moment in his career when we shot this film last year.  He had been given one of the most prestigious choreographing commissions in the world, but he was also learning how to take on a different role at the Company.  He was used to relating to his fellow dancers and ballet masters as a dancer, but as a choreographer he was still trying things for the first time, tentatively finding his way as a leader.  I understand what it feels like to be in that stage of your career – you’ve done enough to get some attention and move to bigger challenges, but as soon as that happens, you’re faced with new responsibilities, political battles, and relationships which you have to learn to navigate.  It has a deep emotional resonance for me when Justin walks out on stage again.  No matter what you’ve achieved, it’s like starting from scratch every time you make something new.  You have to keep working, focusing on the basics, learning, and pushing yourself to do better.

Why is the Tribeca Film Festival the right destination for premiering ‘Ballet 422’ to audiences?
Tribeca is a world renowned festival with a focus on New York City.  You could say the same about New York City Ballet.  This film follows the creation of a single ballet from the first day of rehearsal to the world premiere, the subjects are New Yorkers, and it takes place at Lincoln Center, but to me it’s not really about ballet, it’s a more universal story.  We made this movie for anyone who’s interested in what it means to create something.

Jody Lee Lipes, Director of 'Ballet 422'. Photo Credit Mark Romanek

Jody Lee Lipes, Director of ‘Ballet 422’. Photo Credit Mark Romanek

About The Director
Jody Lee Lipes’ directing credits include HBO’s Girls, NY Export: Opus Jazz, a scripted adaptation of a Jerome Robbins’s Ballet that won an Audience Award at SXSW 2010, and vérité documentary Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same, which premiered at SXSW and Hot Docs 2009. His first feature length screenplay, Confederacy, was selected for the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the 2012 Sundance Directors Lab. Lipes is also an Independent Spirit Award-nominated director of photography, chosen as one of Variety’s “Ten Cinematographers to Watch” in 2011. His cinematography credits include Martha Marcy May Marlene, Tiny Furniture, Afterschool, and Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.

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