Peck, Ratmansky and Wheeldon are called The Big Three of choreography and dance. talk about choreography and dance.
Ballet was ‘dying’ in the 1980s and 1990s, until The Big Three emerged. American Justin Peck (29), Russian Alexei Ratmansky (48), and British Christopher Wheeldon (44) are ‘high on the list of ballet’s most important living choreographers’ says Roslyn Sulcas of the New York Times (20 April 2017). Their works are found in the repertories of companies worldwide, but they all hit the big time at New York City Ballet, where Peck and Wheeldon started as dancers.
On 25 April 2017, City Ballet begins an unusual series of nine performances devoted to the work of these three men, with each program presenting a single-choreographer lineup of the ballets created for the company.
Talking to Sulcas via Skype, The Big Three discussed the revival of ballet, experimental styles, and the emergence of choreographic changes that evolved with different music genres.
Ratmansky says, ‘’I got some advice early on in my career as a choreographer from one of the greats in Europe. He said, do what you do best. I thought, what nonsense, I should try things that I don’t know about. And sometimes you do want to try something challenging, musically or choreographically or in terms of theater or something. But I would say that deep inside me I sensed quite recently what my main interest is — and that would be dancing on pointe and classical technique. I would love to experiment, but at the same time I have learned that there is such richness in the classical vocabulary that my whole life would not be enough to explore that alone.’’
Peck adds, that ballet is a classically based art form, so it comes with a certain set of rules, at least to start with, and ‘’then it’s about how far you want to push from there. When I am in the midst of a new ballet, there is a constant temperature-taking to see where I want to fall on that spectrum, and it’s almost never just within the conventional rules of the art form. But I feel like what I do in ballet is more craft-based than experimental-artist-based. I’m interested in creating a cohesive experience, like a filmmaker.’’
Wheeldon says, ‘’I think we are all craftsmen, we are passionate about ballet technique and vocabulary, and there is so much there to be mined. But I guess I wish I was able to be more fearless and step out of the box.’’
For me, the choreography always comes from the music. When I was growing up, I did more tap dance than ballet, and I’m only realizing now that this early training in rhythm and timing and syncopation has really played into my work,’’ Peck says. Ratmanksy adds, I admired the dancers’ musicality here [New York] from the first day in the studio. Russian musicality is a different story. I think Russian dancers hear the melody, and they interpret it with the upper body, not the feet, so it always seems like they are a little behind the beat. But it’s a different kind of musicality. Here it is, like Justin said about tap dancing, all in the feet.’’ Wheeldon was inspired to ‘’find music that terrified me a little bit, like the Ligeti score I used for Polyphonia. When I started at City Ballet, the attack and speed and energy were so alien to my body that I struggled for almost two years to keep up. But as a choreographer, I was so inspired. I always hoped to harness the qualities I so admired from that technique, with the softer, rounder, upper-body singing that Alexei spoke about. There is never really a lot of time to make a new ballet [at City Ballet], and that forces you to be spontaneous — to rely a little bit more on instinct, and trust that.’’
‘’My reaction is the opposite,’’ says Ratmanksy. ‘’The speed of the process blocks me from being spontaneous and forces me to prepare much more. I have always loved this work and style. I wanted to get into New York City Ballet; I auditioned, quite a few times, unsuccessfully. So for me, to work in this style was ideal. At the same time, I felt that giving [the dancers] aspects that they are not familiar with excites their interest. So working on their upper bodies, or maybe more dramatic expression and bigger movement — the things I learned at the Bolshoi, in Europe and Denmark — can be good in terms of pushing the dancers outside their comfort zone.’’
Working with new music is important to Peck, Ratmansky, and Wheeldon. ‘’It’s my favorite thing to do. I think it’s also really important for maintaining our relevance as an art form. I feel like there is a different, new energy when I collaborate with a living artist, whether it be a composer, designer, lighting designer. I love that process,’’ says Peck.
Ratmansky says, ‘’It’s exciting and can give brilliant results, but it’s more unpredictable and difficult. But I would say it’s the greatest luck for a choreographer to find “your” composer.’’ Wheeldon adds, ‘’It’s true that it can be a terrifying experience, but it’s also exhilarating. Particularly working on a narrative ballet, when you are able to tailor the music in order to tell the story. It’s so satisfying to feel you are building something new with another artist. There is nothing quite like it actually.’’
Photograph of Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon by Victoria Stevens for The New York Times