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Friends in High Places

This mixed bill takes its name from the daily barre classes Tiler Peck started hosting on Instagram Live during the 2020 lockdown, an impromptu venture that soon had 15,000 people tuning in to #turnitoutwithtiler. The New York City ballet superstar is a much-loved luminary, known for her sunny energy on and off stage. That vim comes through in this fizzing programme of new and recent work, Peck’s London debut, giving it a warmth that’s often missing from the contemporary ballet sphere, including in NYCB’s slick neoclassical house style.

Performance

”Turn It Out with Tiler Peck & Friends”

Place

Sadler's Wells, London, UK, March 9, 2023

Words

Sara Veale

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

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Lex Ishimoto of So You Think You Can Dance fame and the phenomenal tapper Michelle Dorrance are two standout performers of Peck’s hand-picked cast, which also includes six NYCB colleagues. The latter come together for “Thousandth Orange,” a sextet Peck devised in 2019, when she was waylaid with a neck injury and, like the eager artist she is, redirected her energy into a choreographic pursuit. A piano quartet plays Caroline Shaw’s like-titled score live on stage, while the dancers stretch and swoop across different levels in tranquil harmony. The lines are clean and the costumes—colour-blocked pastels: coral, seafoam, mustard—gorgeous. The phrasing doesn’t hit quite the same stirring notes as the music, but it’s danced beautifully, especially the opening tableau, with its serene, floaty pas de bras.

From here we get three numbers with Peck herself, starting with a 2021 duet from Alonzo King, where she puts her famous virtuosity to work with Roman Mejia, the pair swivelling side by side before pairing up for a slow, luscious display of partnering. I can’t say the thematic conceit—inspired by Sanskrit philosophy about obsession and consciousness—is especially legible, but there’s a quietude to their long, lean extensions, which unfold peacefully, without drama or affectation. In the final moments they double back on themselves before melting into each other, her head on his chest, like they’re giving into something inevitable.

Michelle Dorrance and Tiler Peck in “Time Spell.” Phototgraph by Christopher Duggan

There’s also some ‘om’ energy to the opening scene of “Time Spell,” which mixes hypnotic tap dancing from Michelle Dorrance—heel-toeing on a wooden platform upstage—with live sonorous vocalisations from Aaron Marcellus Sanders and Penelope Wendtlandt. A co-creation from Peck, Dorrance and jazz choreographer Jillian Meyers, the work splices together and occasionally layers their respective styles, steadily escalating into a tilt-a-whirl of zipping bodies. There’s strutting, shuffling, flinging and sliding; tangoesque strides and street-style slinks. We get whirling soutenus from Peck and righteous syncopations from Dorrance. They strike a white-hot chemistry when they hoof a few phrases together, thumping their toes to a booming beat.

The piece lurches between a lot of vibes and movement qualities, finding new energy and creativity with each one: New Age warbles, racy contortions, stripped-back body percussion. While not every foray quite lands—I’m thinking of a contorted solo from Peck here, scored with some creepy breathwork—the quickfire finale is a thrill, a showcase of technique and flair, everyone bursting out their very best.

Tiler Peck in “Buzzard” in “The Barre Project” by William Forsythe & CLI Studios. Photograph by Geovanny Santillan

“Time Spell” could have been a rewarding closer, but “The Barre Project, Blake Works II” works just as well, with its electro backbeat and breakneck manoeuvring. It’s an IRL staging of a pandemic-era project Peck spearheaded with William Forsythe over Zoom. They originally released it as a film, splicing together snippets of its creation with footage of a recorded performance; here’s it just the juicy dancing itself, devised to push the bounds of the ballet barre, an instrument brought centre stage. Mejia, Ishimoto and Brooklyn Mack move with magnetic nonchalance, unflappable as the steps get faster, trickier, riskier. Ishimoto brings a formidable exactitude, wringing every last action from every last phrase, while Mejia draws out the playful side of Forsythe’s choreography with his body-pumping élan.

And then there’s Peck, utterly in her element as she torques in one direction just to whip back the other way, squeezing an impossible amount of action into a single eight-count. Sharp petit allegro, springing sissones, a flashy reappearance in a swishing red skirt—each step is euphoric. Even in the moodier moments, when James Blake’s thudding soundtrack dips, she never loses the joy.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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