Tucked into the dance documentary Ballet 422, there's a nice cutaway you might miss if you blinked: An ordinary-looking young man wearing a backpack waits quietly for his late-night train on a New York platform. Another weary student or barista on his way home in the city, perhaps.
Except that Justin Peck is a 25-year-old choreographer on his meteoric way up from the corps de ballet in the celebrated New York City Ballet. Peck is a star in the making, but he practices his art way beyond the glare of celebrity glitz. Ballet 422 takes us on a visit to the deglamorized, slightly archaic world in which a new ballet goes from soup to nuts. We'll see only a fragment of the actual premiere, because the film is all about the arduous, intensely collaborative process that brought it to life for the company's winter season in 2013.
Director Jody Lee Lipes follows Peck around through the two months he has to craft a new ballet. The principal piece, "Paz de la Jolla," will be the company's 422nd ballet, but Peck, though he's danced since his teens, is a newbie choreographer, and you can feel the tension in his intense face and his huge, dark eyes. That's about as much melodrama as you're likely to see in this quietly attentive doc, unless you count a conductor's flicker of reluctance to let a pipsqueak choreographer take over his orchestra for a last-minute pep talk.
On the face of it, Lipes seems a perverse choice. He's directed a couple of episodes of the HBO series Girls, and as a cinematographer shot Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer's upcoming studio comedy Trainwreck. Yet Ballet 422 is a modest act of demystification. There's no tyrannical balletmaster, no anorexic Black Swan divas clawing at one another or, as at the Bolshoi, throwing acid in a rival's face. Peck is quiet and polite and lards his sentences with "likes." He's a good listener, but also confident enough in his vision to turn down suggestions from others more experienced than he. Nobody yells, and given the reputation of the creative workplace as a borderline lunatic asylum piled high with emotional luggage, this one seems almost suspiciously serene.
Then again, they have a camera tracking them, and even a verite camera may exercise influence. But in the grand verite tradition of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers, Lipes strives to create for us a world as close as can be gotten to its well-oiled, but charmingly low-tech, routines. We see the costume department matching just the right dye in the washing machine to fabric samples and making alterations to a skirt to reflect the flow of the corps de ballet's bodies. The dancers work hard, taking endless retakes in stride and without noticeable complaint. A young elite dancer who still can't quite get a step right after several retakes says, "It's not in my body yet." Directing a male principal dancer, Peck tells him simply, "You have to pick her up and put her down in a new spot."
In Ballet 422 you won't see anything like the thrilling final shot of Billy Elliott, with its star in the wings, poised to go onstage in his swan costume. So where's the excitement? It's there for those of us who love good movies about the process of collaborative work done for the love of it. In principle, I suppose, you could make an equally enthralling film about a Tesla assembly line, or for that matter a Ford. The enchanting thing about Ballet 422 is that all this hard labor over these two wild, prosaic months of working separately and together is done for impossibly quixotic reasons — for love of the medium, and a beautiful, gossamer dance that will exist for half an hour at most, and then vanish until or unless it's brought to life again. Isn't it romantic?