New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck has gained rock star status across the dance world with groundbreaking ballets, multiple dances for films — including Red Sparrow and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story — and a multitude of awards, including a Tony. Yet this New Yorker deserves another accolade — The Best Non-Houstonian Houston Art Enthusiast.
I’d certainly nominate Peck for this imaginary award after speaking to him about his world premiere dance for the Houston Ballet Under the Folding Sky, inspired by James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University, which is set to debut this Thursday, May 25th at Wortham Center’s Brown Theater.
Calling the architectural light installation “one of the greatest works of art in modern time,” Peck is so captivated by Turrell’s distinctly Houston Skyspace that he used his past visits to the artwork as the creative spark for his latest dance.
Justin Peck Experiences a Houston Dance Epiphany
“It’s such a beautiful and unique experience, and it’s all about how Turrell makes the interplay, the light projection and the natural light changing before our eyes at sunset or sunrise,” Peck tells PaperCity. “It does some kind of transcendent things to our perception to time and perspective.
“I was really moved by that and the ritual act of sitting there and experiencing it over the course of 40 minutes.”
Peck first encountered Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany when he was in Houston working on his first commission for Houston Ballet called Reflections.
Art often inspires art, but Peck will weave a multitude of artful threads when the Houston Ballet dancers take the Wortham stage to Fold the Sky. Peck’s process usually begins with a piece of music he wants to explore, with the third act of the Philip Glass opera The Photographer his latest muse. After talks with Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch about creating another world premiere for the company, Peck found himself thinking back to that transcendent experience in the Skyspace and marrying it with Glass’s music.
“What’s unique about The Photographer is it has this progression, a slow change over time,” Peck says. “You feel the music start in a kind of simply but suspenseful way, somewhat slow in tempo, then over the course of 20 minutes or so it gets faster, more energetic and builds.
“I just felt there was a parallel between that experience with that music and my experience going to the Turrell installation.”
Peck felt that slow progression of both works into something greater could become fertile ground, or in this case, fertile sky, for a new ballet.
“Conceptually, I wanted to create a piece that had a similar feel,” he says. “You’re watching it evolve over the course of certain amount of time, happening organically with a build and expansion to it. The ballet itself is almost like its own art installation.”
Those who have experienced Twilight Epiphany, likely feel the installation invites stillness and contemplation. Yet when I ask Peck how such a piece could give rise to the most kinetic of the performance arts — dance — he replies that audiences might find a connection between these very different art encounters.
“It’s sort of a meditation to sit there and take in that Turrell,” Peck says. “I think there’s something similar about the experience of going to the ballet. You sit in the theater seat, the light goes down and you surrendering to the experience of this ballet.
“I want the audience to feel like they’re in good hands with the overarching experience.”
Usually if you want to see a Justin Peck world premiere, you have to travel to New York City. But Peck does occasionally take commissions — with the Houston Ballet being one of those notable exceptions.
“I don’t do that many new commissions outside of New York anymore,” Peck tells PaperCity. “But I do like coming back here to work with Houston Ballet because there seems to be that special thing about working with the company.”
And with the dance’s inspiration, Peck also found a way to create a new work reflecting Houston’s standing as a dynamic art city.
“I never want that to be forced but if there is a natural way at creating something that feels localized and not so homogenous, not something that could be made anywhere, that’s definitely a route to go,” he says.
Trying to avoid spoilers, Peck wouldn’t give too many details about a special scenic design element of the work, but the fact Rice University alum Karl Jensen designed the set adds another Houston angle to the production.
Then there’s the Houston Ballet’s sizable contribution. Peck maps out the dance on his own body and films himself early in his choreography practice, but when he gets into the studio with the dancers sometimes something wondrous happens.
“Sometimes I’ll work on a certain step with a dancer, and they’ll have an instinct or they’ll make a mistake, and that mistake is almost like a genetic mutation that evolves into something miraculous,” Peck notes. “I feel those moments are the most exciting.
“The process of making a dance is very social. It’s a communal event. When there is creative chemistry in the room with the cast that leads to somewhere that I couldn’t imagine on my own, it can be this mind-blowing thing. And it influences what the piece will become.”
Peck believes that chemistry can sometimes requires artists to be both vulnerable and confident in the process, not afraid of looking silly.
“Houston Ballet has some phenomenal artists like that who are so engaging in the studio to build dances with,” he says. “It’s nice to return to this second commission because we start to build a shorthand and a more ongoing creative relationship that can only benefit the work.”
Under the Folding Sky debuts as part of Houston Ballet’s Divergence production this Thursday, May 25 and runs through June 4.