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Tiler Peck, Creative Spirit

New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck is many things beyond ballerina. Although it’s a role she excels in—she is widely acclaimed for her immaculate technique, speed, and musicality —Peck has always sought more from her career in dance. Schooled from an early age in various genres, including jazz, she made her Broadway debut at age 11, appearing as Gracie Shinn in “The Music Man.” Other musical theatre roles followed, but after seeing a performance of “The Nutcracker” in New York, Peck set her heart on pursuing her ballet training. She entered the School of American Ballet when she was 12 and joined the corps of New York City Ballet in 2005. Her rise in the company was rapid, and she was appointed a principal dancer four years later.

Tiler Peck in “The Barre Project” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Geovanny Santillan

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Although ballet and performing are part of her dancing DNA, Peck has shaped her career to encompass diverse activities, making her one of the most dynamic figures in the American dance community. Aside from her role as a principal dancer, she curates dance programmes, choreographs, designs dancewear, acts, and authors books.

I spoke to Peck on Zoom before her arrival at Sadler’s Wells in London this March to present the UK premiere of “Turn It Out with Tiler Peck & Friends,” a programme of four works first shown at New York City Center last year. There it marked the launch of a new series, “Artists at the Center,” with Peck chosen as the inaugural artist-curator. We talked about “Turn It Out,” where she is in her career, and where she wants to go next.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’ve curated several shows since “BalletNOW,” which you produced for the Los Angeles Music Center in 2017. What motivates you to be a curator, and what do you feel you have learned about curation so far?

I like the fact I get to express my point of view and share what I love about dance. It’s a time for me to have a voice in directing, picking the dancers and the repertory. As dancers, we’re usually just told this is what you’re going to dance. It’s good to be on the other side and have my own vision.

What I’ve learned first and foremost is the value of live music as part of a programme. No matter how short the piece, that’s very important for me. The first three works in “Turn It Out” all have this. I also want to show how I feel about ballet. Because of the platform I have at the moment, it feels like part of my job is to expand people’s idea of what it is and what it can be. I kind of take it as my duty to do this, which is a joy.

Brooklyn Mack, Tiler Peck, Lex Ishimoto & Roman Mejia in “The Barre Project” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Geovanny Santillan

How do you begin putting a programme together?

First I want to make sure there’s a connective throughline and a meaningful progression. For “Turn It Out,” we begin with “Thousandth Orange,” a piece I choreographed, then follow with [Alonso King’s] “Swift Arrow,” which was choreographed on me during the pandemic. “Time Spell was something produced for the launch of the City Center series and is very much a collaboration [with tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance and dancer and choreographer Jillian Meyers]. Then we end with the work that I’m most proud of—Bill Forsythe’s “The Barre Project, Blake Works II.”

This programme came together quite easily because a lot of the content was produced during the [Covid] pandemic. It was a time for me to take a pause and think about who I wanted to work with. I also thought, in order to feel fulfilled I have to make things happen. I took a chance and reached out to two choreographers [King and Forsythe] who I wanted to collaborate with. It just so happened they wanted to work with me, too, and it was the right time for us all.

Brooklyn Mack and Tiler Peck in “The Barre Project.” Photograph by Geovanny Santillan

What do you look for in the artists you invite to work with you?

For dancers, it’s those who I love watching and who inspire me. If I had to pick a quality they share, it would be musicality. Music is at the core of everything for me. That’s why Bill [Forsythe] said he wanted to work with me. He watched a recording of me performing [Balanchine’s] “Theme and Variations” numerous times while he was creating another work for Paris Opera Ballet. This was before we knew each other. A lot of people say I am a very musical dancer, but it’s not something I have consciously focused on. I just hear the music and that’s what comes out. It’s a feeling I have. The dancers who I find intriguing, and they’re all so different, have strong musicality, as well as great technique, of course. They also have an intangible quality that makes you want to watch them, although you can’t always understand why.

When did you first come across the [Pulitzer Prize–winning] composer Caroline Shaw, whose piano quartet “Thousandth Orange” you chose for your own choreography in this programme?

I was at a talk Caroline was giving at Juilliard. She asked some of the Juilliard students to play an excerpt from “Thousandth Orange” and then she spoke about it. The way she described how she created the piece and chose the title was beautiful. She said, “A thousandth orange is just as intricate as the first one.” I was really drawn to that description and could hear her thinking in the music. Damian Woetzel [president of Juilliard and artistic director of Vail International Dance Festival] had asked me to choreograph for the [2019] Vail Festival, and I decided this was the piece I wanted to use. It’s extremely hard to count, but that’s what I love about it—just when you think you’ve found a theme and know where the music is going, it takes a different avenue. It has that slight unpredictability. That’s what helped me make the dance interesting.

Tiler Peck and Michelle Dorrance in Dorrance, Jillian Meyers and Peck’s “Time Spell.” Photograph by Christopher Duggan

Your early training as a dancer was in various styles, and you were involved in musical theatre from a young age. Has this influenced you wanting to bring different genres together, such as ballet and tap in the piece “Time Spell,” which you’ve created with Michelle Dorrance and Jillian Meyers?

Yes. It’s a twofold thing, because it’s also what interests me as an artist. It’s fun and challenging for the ballet dancers in this piece as well as the tap dancer. People describe me as very musical, but when I’m in the room with tap dancers I feel like the most unmusical person there! Putting a ballet and tap dancer together has been done before. For Michelle and I, it was about asking how can we stop time, or start time? How can we find this rhythmically interesting? It was almost like a game. That’s what made it such a fun process. I think Michelle is a tap genius and any chance I get to work with her I find so creative. And there are amazing vocalists [Aaron Marcellus and Penelope Wendtlandt] accompanying the piece.

How do you approach your own choreography? Can you talk about your process?

I start with a piece of music that I like. From that, the steps flow pretty naturally for me. I’ll get in a room and make a framework—not necessarily the whole structure of the piece but a section based around a favourite part of the music. Before I bring other dancers into the room, I like to have something planned. I prefer not wasting too much time. I think this comes from my experience as a dancer. I don’t like it when choreographers say, “OK, let’s just play and find movement.”

Performing Balanchine’s works at New York City Ballet, I’ve come to learn what a genius he was at structure and how to be musical, like not always dancing in straight eights, even if that is what the music is. Clearly that has influenced me and how I think.

Tiler Peck in “The Barre Project” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Geovanny Santillan

Did you enjoy working with Forsythe on “The Barre Project,” which was originally created on film but is performed live in “Turn It Out”?

It was probably one of the best experiences of my career. Every day, I felt like I was getting a masterclass in both dance and choreography. We talked a lot about time. He would say, “Ok, Tiler, I want you to think about a rubber band. How can you stretch out those steps I just gave you? Then I want you to compress them and do the last four as quickly as you can.” When we watched the digital version afterwards, I was like, dang, that part looked like it was in fast forward. And Bill said, “I thought the same thing.” It’s amazing how a different thought in your head when you do a step can change the way you do it. You think your body can’t physically do something, but when you have an image in your head somehow it can.

Are you optimistic about the dance world at the moment, and ballet?

I think so. I would like to see classical ballet moving forward. I feel many of the new choreographers who come to ballet are very much from the contemporary world, and some of them don’t know how to move in a pointe shoe. While I love being experimental, I also want to make sure that ballet doesn’t become a forgotten form. As Bill would say about “The Barre Project,” he wanted people to look at it and think, “Wow, this is what classical ballet is. We’re doing classical steps and making them interesting.” That is something I strongly believe in. I think we need to work a little harder at the moment to use the classical form in interesting ways, to keep it moving forward. Obviously there are choreographers, like Ratmansky and Justin Peck, who have come from classical ballet backgrounds, but they are a relatively limited number of people. That is just my impression at the moment.

You’ve broadened your activities in dance to include choreographing and curating, and you also design dancewear. What’s driving your desire to delve into design?

For the dancewear, because I live in it, wanting to design was motivated by two things. One, comfort. I didn’t want to keep pulling my leotard down in the back every five seconds. I kept thinking, why hasn’t someone figured this out? [Laughs] I wanted to find the right leg line or pair of shorts, which I wear a lot over my leotard, that are the right length and ride up to the right spot when you’re moving. I’m not sure non-dancers who make dancewear can know these things. Secondly, it’s about expression. I thought why can’t we wear different styles of dancewear during the day? I definitely draw from the fashion world. If I see a beautiful dress at a gala, for example, or one that has a great back, I think that shape would make a great leotard.

Do you think dancers today are thinking more about their post-performance careers and trying to spread their nets wide as early as possible? Do you feel that’s a pressure for ballet dancers in particular?

I don’t think so actually. That’s just how I am. I’ve never wanted to have all my eggs in one basket. I wouldn’t want to finish dancing and have no clue what I wanted to do next. I’ve always been interested in so many different things that I thought, why wait until I finish dancing to start those projects? If I start working on them now, maybe it will lead me seamlessly into a certain area when I stop dancing.

If you imagine your post-performance life, is there one activity you feel you’ll pursue?

Curating is what I am really enjoying most at the moment. I like sharing something I think is important to dance that people can see. The more I do it, the more I think I have a unique perspective to offer. I also love nurturing other dancers, trying to help further their careers, and picking groups to work with. I’ve been a principal dancer for a while now, and that allows for a little more time and space in my head. I know a lot of the ballets well that we perform at New York City Ballet, so I have room to think about other projects and how I can continue growing. At this point in my career, it feels OK to ask questions: Where do I want to go next? Who do I want to work with? Curating is where I get to push myself in the way that I want to.

I also grew up acting and feel I’ve always wanted to do that. Perhaps something on television. I don’t know what it would be exactly, or if it will ever happen. Then maybe more directing one day—that seems interesting to me. Staying curious and feeling that I am being creative and moving forward is always what I’m looking for.

You’ve just been performing Aurora in [Peter Martins’] “The Sleeping Beauty,” and you’ll be bringing “Turn It Out” to London shortly afterwards. Do you find that sort of transition easy?

I laugh about this. For me, “The Sleeping Beauty” is one of the hardest things for a ballerina to dance. I love it, but you're looking at an uphill battle, especially how we do it at City Ballet with only one intermission. We do all our hardest dancing and “The Vision” scene [Act II] with no break. It’s pretty brutal. But I have said I love a challenge! After my three shows, when I’m able to relax, I’ll be really looking forward to London.

Rachael Moloney

Rachael Moloney is a UK–based editor and writer covering the arts, dance, and design. She has studied ballet as well as modern and contemporary techniques from a young age, and she is particularly interested in the relationship between dance and design. Her most recent dance writing has appeared in Wallpaper* magazine, where she was a senior editor.



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