Ballet 422 review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The ballet can be a visually amazing experience that one might wonder what goes on behind the scenes. What are the mechanics of all these elements of dancing, staging and music coming together? Ballet 422 gives the viewer a chance to be a fly on the wall for the entire production of a show from conception to debut. But with so little explained about any of this process that proceeds quite rapidly, it may leave you begging to be hit with a fly swatter for some attention.
This is a documentary that only stops for subtitles to inform the viewer of the legacy and current day of the ballet house. The rest of the time we’re watching everything behind the scenes from a distance. Depicted in the handheld format, we’re taken through the process of the New York City Ballet staging its 422nd performance - a newly crafted work by rising choreographer Justin Peck (a 25-year-old who started as a dancer). Every component is given our eye from the creation of the costumes, to the assembly of the dancers, to the culmination of the orchestra. All of this leads up to the beautiful final product seen from the audience, the stage and behind the curtain.
Director Jody Lee Lipes makes the bold decision to keep us entirely separate from the stage production. There are no talking heads or accompanying narration. It’s an interesting direction that allows the viewer to just take in the raw reality of the ballet by never intruding too much on the key players. But this is also its greatest fault in how it leaves the entire production process very aloof to the average viewer. I don’t know much about ballet, but I’d love to learn more about the decadent assembly. This is not that documentary, more or less. It’s a film that seems best suited for the theater nerds and dance geeks already familiar with most of the process and just want to see a personal perspective.
There are a handful of moments where this actually works. The reaction shots of Justin Peck as he supervises and directs make for interesting shots to focus on. Around his team, he appears rather collected and full of focused energy. While silently observing the various stages of the ballet, he sits with his mouth agape in either awe or fear. He watches a rehearsal with a pen and paper in hand. He has made no notes. Either he’s confident enough in the play to not use his pen or he’s just not sure where to proceed next. It has to be a little intimidating directing a ballet in such a massive venue at the age of 25, even with as much experience as he has.
But the film is also a mixed bag for pulling back the camera on its subject matter. Not a single part of process is ever examined or explained by either the dancers, the directors, the non-existent narrator or explanatory title cards. What we see is just the raw footage without any explanation as if it were a lengthy behind the scenes featurette. If you’re not familiar with the functions of coordinating a ballet, there’s a fair chance most of this will go over your head. It’s almost as if the cast and crew told the viewer to go sit in a corner and keep it down while they work. Don’t ask any questions - you’ll only disrupt the creative process. That being said, if you are big into theater, this documentary gets right to the points about what you’d want out of a look inside the New York City Ballet.
Ballet 422 takes a visual approach behind the curtain, but pulls back too far to be a more informative experience. From a purely visual aspect, it’s mesmerizing to watch the dancers, musicians and stage crew converge on creating something that’s truly beautiful. But don’t expect much else as the viewer is shoved to the corner while the important work is being completed. It’s the equal of receiving a backstage pass to the ballet where nobody will talk to or acknowledge your curiosity. You’ll get to hear the exchanges between the crew, see the dances take shape and the orchestra work with the director. You may not gain a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes, but you’ll at least have an experience and perspective to the process. That’s about all you can gain from eavesdropping on these few days of production.