Tiler Peck was a virtual godsend during lockdown. I had never seen her in performance but during the pandemic restrictions, I watched her on screen, dancing as a principal in New York City Ballet recordings, being coached remotely in master classes, giving ballet lessons herself from her parents' kitchen via Instagram. She was always upbeat, up for anything. Zoom is a trial for dancers: sound can be unsynchronised, camera coverage limited, left and right transposed. Yet Peck was undaunted, cheerful and tireless, remarkably fit after an injury to her neck in 2019.
Best of all, she succeeded in commissioning a ballet via Zoom from William Forsythe, who was sheltering at home in Vermont. Though eager to work with each other, their schedules had never coincided until both were stranded for months on end. They collaborated daily, bringing in three other dancers during 2020 – Lex Ishimoto, Brooklyn Mack and Roman Mejia, all based in different cities. They eventually came together to perform The Barre Project, recorded digitally in a vacant theatre in Los Angeles and released online in 2021. Slightly adapted, The Barre Project, Blake Works II now forms the concluding section of Turn It Out, a programme of four European premieres curated and directed by Peck.
The evening opens with her own short work, Thousandth Orange, choreographed while she was injured. The six dancers are from New York City Ballet, a mix of corps, soloists and newly created principal Mira Nadon; Lauren Lovette, a former principal, is now freelance as a choreographer and dancer. A quartet of musicians plays the score, by young American composer Caroline Shaw, on stage behind the dancers. The group appear friends who enjoy being together, watching each other dance in a concert performance that begins and ends in the same attractive tableau. Though the practice dress outfits suggest they might be colour-co-ordinated couples, partnerships keep changing, alliances reforming. Skilfully done, this is Peck's miniature version of Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering. How I wish we could see more of these American-trained dancers with their clarity of purpose, speed and unforced strength.
Peck joins Roman Mejia (another recently created NYCB principal) for Alonzo King's Swift Arrow pas de deux to music by jazz composer Jason Moran. The pianist is Shu-Wei Tseng, who played for Peck's Thousandth Orange. King, who has choreographed for many companies, runs his own LINES Ballet in San Francisco. A programme note implies that Peck, the arrow of the work's title, is seeking to merge with her target, the divine Brahman, source of knowledge. The duet reads as a stormy relationship with Peck as the vehement partner, her pointe shoes potential weapons. She embodies the piano music's flurries, confronting unyielding Mejia during its pauses. They grapple together as they argue and negotiate, combatants on equal terms. The duet ends in a sudden reconciliation as she's enfolded in his arms. Though there's no overt emotion in this fierce pas de deux, it's unexpectedly moving.
Next comes the most substantial work of the evening, Time Spell, in which ballet dancers combine with tap dancers and two remarkable vocalists. The originators are Michelle Dorrance, whose tap group has appeared at Sadler's Wells before, Jillian Meyers, another virtuoso tapper and choreographer, and Peck herself. What happens if you mash together percussive tap with silent ballet? Everybody has a great time is the answer, including the audience.
At first, it is clear which performers are the tap specialists: they're gravity-bound, legs apart, feet pounding miked platforms. They and the singers, Aaron Marcellus Sanders and Penelope Wendtlandt, provide the rhythms for the freer-moving ballet dancers. A quartet of bun-head clones in white leotards prance and spin on pointe; male ballet dancers show off virtuoso tricks, leaping and tumbling. Then you start noticing that they're all versatile dancers, singers included. Pointe shoes can be percussive, tappers can leap and pirouette. Who's who when they're wearing socks and casual clothes? It can be tricky to distinguish between Dorrance and tall ballerina Lauren Lovette, both graceful and mischievous. Peck is unmistakeable in whatever she does. Her duet with Dorrance on a miked platform, exchanging moves and rhythms, is electrifying.
Their duet is the high point in a somewhat rambling medley of routines in different styles, giving everyone a chance to shine in Brandon Stirling Baker's moody lighting. Time Spell ends in a crowd-pleasing finale with dancers and singers performing in time together like a Balanchine applause machine – or 42nd Street.
After the interval comes the theatre version of The Barre Project, Blake Works II. The second part of the title refers to Forsythe's choice of James Blake's music, which he used for Blake Works I (made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016 and performed by many other companies, including English National Ballet). When it was screened during lockdown, The Barre Project was dedicated to ‘all those who have sustained themselves with a barre in any form'. Dancers stuck at home had to resort to chair backs, kitchen units, tabletops and bookcase shelves. The presence of an actual barre in a dance studio, the support for the daily ritual of ballet class, was a reassuring sign of life returning to normal.
In a theatre, the horizontal silver line in the darkness at the back of the stage is more of a motif than a prop. Though Peck starts off placing her hands on the barre as she extends her legs and feet in swift tendu variations, swivelling back and forth, she doesn't rely on its support. Nor do the men who replace her in turn, Lex Ishimoto, Roman Mejia and Brooklyn Mack, showing off what they can do with ballet's lexicon of steps. Forsythe's choreography is an outpouring of technical demands for finely tuned dancers who seem to be responding intuitively to Blake's electronic wittering. In fact, they learned the timing remotely through counts to recorded tracks. ‘Dudes, you are valiant', Forsythe told them via Zoom two and a half years ago. By now, on tour, they have absorbed his choreography into their physical memories, at ease with the music's vagaries.
Peck's co-ordination is phenomenal, shifting in an instant from speed to rubato to a frozen moment of stillness. Her feet are so arrow-sharp that it comes as surprise to realise she's not on pointe. There is only one duet, a mocking ballroom salsa for her and Brooklyn Mack – of course, they weren't allowed to touch each other without careful screening. That's why there is a projected video ‘meditation' of hands moving over metal bars, to a wistful Blake song. The online version of The Barre Project ended with the filmed hands covering each other for reassurance and support, a poignant reminder of horrible periods of touch-free isolation. Now, on stage, Forsythe's movement studies end in a carefree finale. Less awestruck by The Barre Project in the theatre, I have to appreciate how differently I watched it onscreen during lockdown. And how much I don't appreciate James Blake's music.
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).