Leverage: Tiler Peck and Her Brilliant Friends

Think “prima ballerina,” and leverage may not be your first association. A ballerina is beautiful, ethereal, her body a blank canvas on which a (traditionally male) choreographer projects his vision.

Tiler Peck and Michelle Dorrance. Photo: Ken Jacques

In this millennium, though, some of the world’s top ballerinas are rewriting that script. Leveraging their fame and influence, they’ve curated their own shows—commissioning choreographers and hand-picking casts. Sylvie Guillem led the way; after a stellar career with the Paris Opera Ballet and Royal Ballet, she sought collaborators like contemporary/kathak dancer Akram Khan and theatrical artist Robert Lepage. Since then, Alina Cojocaru and Wendy Whelan have produced their own shows, and Whelan currently wields power as associate artistic director of New York City Ballet.

Now comes New York City Ballet superstar Tiler Peck. She brought “Turn It Out with Tiler Peck and Friends” to the Civic Theatre last week, and I’ve rarely seen a dancer look like she was having more fun. That may have a lot to do with the friends Peck enlisted: legendary choreographers William Forsythe and Alonzo King; composers including Caroline Shaw and Jason Moran; and of course, the dancers—NYCB buddies, tap genius Michelle Dorrance, and more. The program was presented by La Jolla Music Society.

A further delight: three of the four works had live music, including shiver-inducing vocals by Aaron Marcellus and Penelope Wendtlandt in “Time Spell.” For sheer joy, nothing matched this exuberant mashup of ballet, tap, and a touch of street dance. Peck co-created the piece with Dorrance and Jillian Meyers (whose credits include “La La Land” and a personal fave, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”).

“Time Spell.” Photo: Ken Jacques

Tap is percussion, it’s a conversation begun by Dorrance’s feet as the curtain opens, so clean you catch each sharp flap and the shush as she swings a foot to the side. In evocative smoky lighting (by Brandon Stirling Baker), dancers enter soundlessly. Marcellus and Wendtlandt come onstage, doing wordless vocals that loop to create an enchantment of sound.

The piece is subtitled “Subdivisions of Time and Space, and Intersections of Isolation and Community, Longing and Joy.” If that sounds like an everything bagel of a dance, it is. Those intersections happen. Dancers in the 11-person cast partner, then part. Two men do showoff-y pirouettes as everyone claps and stomps. A woman on pointe steps pigeon-toed as if her legs are brand-new, and she’s figuring out how to use them. In a playful duet, Peck and Dorrance dance in unison, except Peck’s wearing socks.

“Time Spell” is fun, it’s feel-good, and it got a roaring standing ovation. And yes, it could use tightening. Still, there’s a splendid generosity to that cascade of dance.

The King and Forsythe works showcase Peck’s artistry—her articulation, musicality, and breathtaking speed.

Peck and Mejia. Photo: Ken Jacques

King’s “Swift Arrow” is a charming pas de deux for Peck and fellow NYCB principal Roman Mejia, to music created for this piece by Jason Moran. To a percussive opening, Peck twists and contorts; Mejia responds. A slower piano section—performed live by Basia Bochenek—takes them into juicy partnering, with lots of touching … which so often means the man’s hands on the woman’s body; here, it’s Peck who keeps touching Mejia’s bare chest and back, and it’s different. Sensual yet light.

Forsythe’s propulsive “The Barre Project, Blake Works II” take us to ballet class—advanced class, in which Peck and three men (Mejia, Lex Ishimoto, and Brooklyn Mack) execute knife-edge precise moves while holding a barre at the rear of the stage. Oh, Peck’s legs! Eventually they venture into the space with gorgeous scoops, tight turns, and powerhouse poses.

The often-breakneck pace is driven by recorded music by James Blake, most of it with distorted vocals and clanging percussion—think, MRI machine. That felt right, considering this dance was developed at the height of the pandemic, over Zoom, and premiered online.

“Thousandth Orange.” Photo: Ken Jacques

Peck took the role of choreographer for “Thousandth Orange,” to music by Caroline Shaw (performed live on violin, viola, cello, and piano). Six lovely dancers (all from NYCB) wearing sherbet-hued costumes create sweet tableaus. At times, two partner as the others watch. It’s pretty but slight. However, in a pre-show talk, the phrase Dorrance and Meyers used most about Peck was “work ethic.” I figure Peck is just beginning her career as a dance maker.

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