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Watching a preternaturally talented dancer rise in two artistic worlds
I first saw Tiler Peck when she was still a student. She was one of two School of American Ballet pupils featured in a lecture-demonstration presented by esteemed teacher and former New York City Ballet dancer, Suki Schorer. I was immediately struck by Peck's verve and aplomb, and I left the event sensing that in the years to come, she was destined for an important career.
My instinct was correct. Peck became an apprentice with NYCB at 15, a full company member soon after turning 16, and a principal dancer before age 21. For me, watching her performances in major George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins ballets has revivified roles that were so familiar, they bordered on stale. Peck's work inspires me to listen to the music more acutely, and to notice details I previously missed. She dances with bracing clarity, and phrases even the most intricate choreography with a fascinating blend of sophistication and naturalness.
Luckily for Peck, she's with NYCB at a time when an increasing number and range of choreographers are creating new works for its repertory. Many have gravitated to Peck, and these tailor-made parts have allowed her to mature onstage in front of our eyes. In 2012, Christopher Wheeldon crafted a solo for her in Les Carillons in which she made his intricate and challenging movements seem like her own spontaneous responses to Bizet's music. The inventive Justin Peck (no relation) has fashioned roles for her that helped her ferocious energy and focus reach new heights. And last year, Alexei Ratmansky's Pictures at an Exhibition showcased her newly minted maturity and authoritativeness, as well as a resonant gravitas in her dancing.
Interestingly, Broadway played a part in Peck's path to NYCB. At 12, she took over the role of Gracie Shinn, the mayor's daughter, in Susan Stroman's revival of The Music Man. Peck had already been studying ballet in California with several eminent NYCB alumnae as instructors; once she was in New York for the musical, Stroman encouraged her to apply for the School of American Ballet.
Peck has continued to navigate between the worlds of ballet and theater, especially in recent years. In 2013, she and her husband, NYCB and An American in Paris star Robert Fairchild, danced the second-act ballet in the New York Philharmonic's mounting of Carousel, later broadcast on PBS. Last year, she and Stroman reunited at Washington, DC's Kennedy Center where Peck performed the title role in Little Dancer, a Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical inspired by the life of the young ballerina who posed for Edgar Degas' famous "Little Dancer Aged 14" sculpture. Girlish and feisty, Peck was the show's beating heart in a performance that combined energy and expression. And earlier this year, she filled in for her sister-in-law and fellow NYCB principal, Megan Fairchild, for a few performances as Ivy in On the Town.
This season, though, I'm looking forward to seeing Peck back on her home turf. I'm excited that she's reprising Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 this fall at NYCB because I find that she responds to the Russian composer with particular insight, manifesting the physical expression of his crystalline texture and sweeping force. I also love that she's inheriting so many roles created for Patricia McBride, who danced with NYCB from 1959 to 1989 and inspired ballets by both Balanchine and Robbins. Like McBride, Peck is a petite brunette with a sparkling stage presence, adept at speedy allegro choreography. Tellingly, the McBride role Peck has most made her own is in Who Cares, Balanchine's affectionate tribute to Gershwin and the brash Broadway energy he embodied. She never performs the "Fascinating Rhythm" solo the same way twice, and it's always breathtaking, especially when she danced it in honor of McBride's Kennedy Center Honor last year. I can't wait to see how Peck reinvents the charmingly old-fashioned Harlequinade later this season, which was also originated by McBride.
There's one Balanchine-McBride role she seems destined to dance: Rubies, the jazzy, slyly sensual middle section of Jewels, a showcase for McBride's effervescent personality and wit that few could fully inhabit. Peck performed the ballet at the Vail International Dance Festival, but not yet with NYCB. I, for one, am getting impatient!
Speaking of Vail, watching Peck in programs created by the fest's artistic director, Damian Woetzel, is where I realized the breath of her range. Woetzel was a stellar NYCB principal, and the end of his tenure overlapped with Peck's beginning, so they danced a few ballets together quite memorably. Now offstage, he has nurtured her talent at Vail by having her perform choreography by the likes of Antony Tudor, José Limon, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Larry Keigwin, and Matthew Neenan. She even proved that she can knock off fouettés with the best of them in traditional ballet showstoppers like the Don Quixote pas de deux.
This past summer at Vail, Woetzel paired her with legendary vaudevillian and Tony winner Bill Irwin, and they are reprising the duet at City Center's Fall for Dance Festival this October. They are both open-minded masters of excellence, and make for a brilliant and unexpected collaboration.
Susan Reiter writes regularly about dance for TDF Stages
Top photo: Tiler Peck in George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3. Photo by Paul Kolnik