Perhaps the best dance piece to come out of lockdown is William Forsythe’s The Barre Project. This half-hour film to the music of James Blake turns something basic and worn out – the daily exercises of the ballet dancer on the barre – into something completely new. It is short but beautifully satisfying and thrilling in its understated virtuosity.
Forsythe is a master choreographer, but the brilliance of The Barre Project is largely due to its center dancer, Tiler Peck, principal of the New York City Ballet. Peck is effortless, even at top speed, solid titanium and crystal clear. She’s also a dancer of warmth and connection, that Californian girl sun in evidence when she zooms in from her apartment in New York City. She just returned from the West Coast, where she spent the last year teaching a successful Instagram ballet class from her parents’ kitchen, attracting celebrity fans and a growing public profile.
Not someone to wait for things to happen, Peck was the instigator of The Barre Project, having aspired for years to work with Forsythe. The feeling was mutual, but the duo’s busy schedules had prevented it. So when the lockdown hit, she texted him, “Bill, what are you doing?” They started the next day, working online for three months, four hours a day – with dancers Lex Ishimoto, Brooklyn Mack, and Roman Mejia as well – and she’s thrilled with the experience. “Working with Bill is like a masterclass every day,” she says, and their joy comes through clearly in the film. “He called me yesterday and said, ‘I think I have withdrawals,’ Peck says. “I was like, ‘Me too!'”
While some dancers enjoyed the forced interruption of rehearsals and non-stop performances, Peck spent the last year performing at full blast, having already been forced to leave the stage by injury a year earlier. “These are the golden years,” said the 32-year-old. “I can’t take another year off – I just got home!” It’s almost unbelievable that she came back, considering the severity of Peck’s injury, a herniated disc. She woke up one day in April 2019 with her neck completely locked, so painful that “I literally couldn’t even move my eyeballs.” A succession of doctors told Peck that she would never dance again, or even walk, if she was hit the wrong way.
Peck tried various specialists, but in the end, she attributes her recovery in part to an energy healer, who brought her back on stage in seven months. She knows how cranky that can seem. “I would have been the first person to say, ‘This can’t work’,” she laughs, but now she swears. “It’s crazy not to think that the mind and the body are so connected,” she says. Forty-five minutes of each session would be devoted to conversation, her therapist observing how different subjects affected her body and strained her neck. “Then it would be, ‘OK, this is what we need to talk about.’ And I really feel like that’s what healed me, ”she says.
Peck had experienced major changes in his life in the two years leading up to the injury. A split with her husband, dancer Robbie Fairchild, was very public (“Our wedding was at Martha Stewart Weddings”) and they dived into all of life in her sessions, not just the injury. The experience has changed “the way I enjoy everything,” she says, especially being on stage. “During my first show, I felt that there was a generosity in my dance that did not exist before.
His body will never be the same again. “I can never look completely down or up without using my upper body. These movements don’t exist for me, ”she says. But repeatedly flogging his head in a circle during Swan Lake’s famous 32 Whip Bends proved surprisingly straightforward. And his motivation remains intact. This quality is deeply rooted: Peck’s mother is a former dancer and gymnast, his father teaches football in high school, his older sister is a high school principal; they are all athletic and competitive. “When a friend of mine comes home and we play games in the backyard, they call it the Peck Olympics, because everyone’s 110%, it’s hysterical. My mom taught me everything in the beginning and her mindset was, if you aren’t going to do it all, you better not.
Peck wasn’t even very interested in ballet at first, preferring jazz. “I thought it was the most boring style of dancing.” But that’s how her brain works, she says, to take on the toughest challenge. “I really feel like I was born with the gift of dancing,” she says. “But the amount of self-motivation and determination that I have is irrelevant. Nothing has ever been good enough. This determination led her to move to New York City at the age of 11, with her grandmother, to dance on Broadway in The Music Man, then join the New York City Ballet at age 15. She was appointed director at the early age of 20.
Some of those motivational messages she conveys in her first children’s book, Katarina Ballerina, written with Kyle Harris, who she starred with in the musical Little Dancer. The book is about a girl who dreams of being a dancer but doesn’t have the perfect body. “But she’s got that ‘it’ factor,” Peck says. “It’s about making your own differences and your unique gifts, because that’s what sets you apart.”
It’s a great message, but ballet has such a narrow field of entry in terms of what bodies should do and look like, is that realistic? Peck insists that ballet flats are not as identical as you might think. “I don’t have the best turnout,” she says, “but I know what works for me, which angles look best to me from the front. Sometimes I would watch videos of other dancers and think, “Why am I dancing? Because my legs don’t do this at all, I’m so tight in the hamstrings. But I have this musicality and this speed that I try to hold on to.
We are talking about whether the culture of ballet is changing. “There was talk of whether you gained too much weight or too little weight; you couldn’t perform, ”she said. “Now I don’t know what this conversation would look like.” There are accounts of transparency, diversity, well-being, and toxic corporate cultures in the ballet world. The New York City Ballet has faced the departure of director Peter Martins amid allegations of sexual harassment, and since 2019 the company has been run by ex-dancers Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan. “The business has changed so much,” Peck says. “We have the impression that the voices of the dancers are being heard, they have a lot more to say. But you’re never going to make everyone happy. “
Peck is back dancing with NYCB for their Spring Gala, a digital show hosted by Sofia Coppola. But she also pursues her happiness of dancing elsewhere, in her own choreography, putting on shows such as A New Stage, where she danced a rewrite of Petrushka with jookin dancer Lil Buck, and working on a dance-jazz fusion with choreographer Alonzo King and singer Gregory Porter. “He’s trying to take charge of your own career a little bit,” she said, beaming down the line, about to grab her bag and rush to rehearsals. “I feel like now is the time to do the things that are really going to push me.”
• The Barre project is on the Sadler’s Wells digital stage, May 6-16. The NYCB Spring Gala runs May 6-20. An evening of jazz and dance is on request, from May 1 to August 1.