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Ballet star Justin Peck on making his Broadway debut as choreographer
Although Justin Peck has been a boldface name in the dance world for a number of years, the revival of Carousel at the Imperial Theatre marks his Broadway debut as choreographer. The 30-year-old joined New York City Ballet as a dancer in 2006 and was promoted to soloist seven years later. In the interim, he began creating his own work and in 2014 he was appointed NYCB's resident choreographer, providing the troupe with a steady stream of invigorating ballets of varying styles.
Now Peck is bringing his considerable talents to Broadway and he's starting with a particularly daunting project. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic explores some very dark themes -- poverty, domestic abuse, crime, death -- and dance plays an incredibly significant role. The original 1945 production was choreographed by the legendary Agnes de Mille (who gets a Playbill credit for every Carousel revival), and Act II features an extended ballet that greatly impacts the story of a troubled turn-of-the-20th-century couple, mill worker Julie Jordan (Tony winner Jessie Mueller) and carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Tony nominee Joshua Henry), whose relationship transcends this mortal coil.
That pivotal sequence gave Peck plenty to dig into. "I always felt that the ballet seemed like a completely different show than the rest of Carousel," he says. "I wanted to incorporate the community more, so that's what we did with this version of it. It's the first time we get to see [Julie and Billy's daughter] Louise. I wanted to present vignettes, or anecdotes, of her life. I feel like it gives Billy more purpose for wanting to return to Earth."
Making dance an integral part of the narrative throughout the production was a priority for Peck and three-time Tony-winning director Jack O'Brien. Consequently, they looked to some of Peck's NYCB colleagues to fill roles, notably principal dancer Amar Ramasar, who's making his Broadway debut as Jigger Craigin, a no-good whaler who expresses himself through movement.
"From the beginning they wanted dance to be very prominent in this production," says Ramasar. "That's why Lindsay Mendez dances, Josh dances, and even [opera star] Renée Fleming has a waltz during the 'Real Nice Clambake' number. We went back and forth about whether I would dance in the first 'Prelude' entrance. Originally, I just walked through the guys, but Justin really wanted to make it more dramatic. From the start, he wanted to establish the characters, tell the story right away."
Ramasar has been in six ballets Peck choreographed and says he's a master at communicating his ideas. He points to "Blow High, Blow Low," a high-flying showcase for a chorus of seamen, as an example of Peck's singular vision that also encapsulates the show's complicated tone. "The number has barely changed, if at all, since we learned it in the studio," Ramasar says. "Justin explained it so well, the guys got it right away. He wanted us to have a strong male presence, but it's not just a happy-go-lucky dance. He wanted to show that life for sailors during that time wasn't all fun; this was a dangerous profession. It takes a certain kind of strength, because it was a hard life. When he has these rough steps and static movements, it shows that kind of stress. But then you also have the bond of brotherhood that gets you through -- and also helps entice Billy to become part of the crew."
Another big ensemble number, "June Is Bustin' Out All Over," in which singing and dancing trade-off continuously, required more experimentation. "I think I did three or even five versions of 'June' between the time we were in the studio through previews," Peck admits. "I put in a completely new version of it at one point in the process of performing it!.
The luxury of being able to hone the choreography during previews is completely new for Peck; in the ballet world, critics see and review new work at its first public performance. "What's great about working on a Broadway show is that you have this time to really refine and tweak the production, to a point where a lot of minor changes can make something go from good to great," says Peck. "In the ballet world, it would be very useful to have some sort of preview period."
But while he's enthusiastic about his Carousel experience, don't expect Peck to abandon ballet for Broadway anytime soon: He's premiering new works at San Francisco Ballet and NYCB within the next month. "I've learned a lot," he says about his musical theatre indoctrination. "And I'm excited to be able to apply some of that to what I'm doing in the ballet world as well."
To read about a student's experience at Carousel, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry in Carousel. Photos by Julieta Cervantes.
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