It seems as if, for every ten issue-oriented documentaries that essentially function as long-form magazine articles with images attached, we get perhaps one doc that exemplifies the methods of “direct cinema” — the observational mode of documentary filmmaking that allows audiences to observe from a detached remove. That mode is utilized to enlightening effect in Ballet 422, the second feature doc from director and ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (his lensing credits include Martha Marcy May Marlene and Afterschool). Lipes’s talent as a cinematographer (he shot this film as well) is of no minor significance — unlike those journalism-with-pictures docs that fail to offer images of significance, Ballet 422 is more visually sumptuous than most narratives you’re likely to see this year, featuring careful compositions that make watching the film an aesthetic experience as much as an intellectual one.
Lipes’s subject is the New York City Ballet’s production of Paz de la Jolla, the 422nd new work the company has put on; its choreographer is 25-year-old Justin Peck, a dancer in the NYCB’s most junior group — the corps de ballet — who won enough acclaim in the company’s choreography program to be chosen to mount a new production. Ballet 422 studies the mere two months he was given to put Paz de la Jolla together.
Crucially, Lipes does not hang the success or failure of his film on viewers’ knowledge of ballet-centric minutiae. While the film is dominated by images of Peck embroiled in his process — writing and revising choreography, working with dancers, consulting with costume designers or lighting technicians — having a specific understanding of just what he's up to at each moment, or even a general understanding of ballet, is not essential to engaging with what's onscreen. Watching Peck build his world, decision by decision, I recalled a sublime insight from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: As humans, our specific interests are beside the point — it’s the fact that we’re interested in something — anything! — that matters. The real focus of Ballet 422 is not the ballet consuming the lives of Peck and his collaborators, but the intensity and focus that they bring to their task.
Scene after scene features professionals discussing creative decisions — should the costumes have a sash? What is the best way for this dancer to hold up that dancer? — with a gravity that suggests each is of life-or-death importance. Few things are as compelling to watch as a person deeply, intensely focused on their work.
Lipes’s craft decisions suggest that he works with a similar focus, as his exacting compositions make it a pleasure to watch the long takes play out, which allow the audience to see Peck’s creative thought process working in real time. In Ballet 422, the craft evidenced by the filmmaker mirrors that of his subjects.