Like its title, the film “Ballet 422” makes a concerted effort not to overdramatize its subject. This documentary by Jody Lee Lipes, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, focuses on the painstaking, sometimes tense work of putting together a new ballet, from the germ of an idea to the closing of the curtain. What comes as a surprise is just how exciting it is to watch.
The ballet being produced is “Paz de la Jolla,” a beach-themed romp by Justin Peck, a young choreographer who has quickly risen to become one of the most talked-about artists in his field. When the movie was made, two years ago, Peck was just 25, and “Paz de la Jolla” was only his third professionally produced work. It was also the 422d ballet to be staged at New York City Ballet, the company where Peck is a dancer. (He was recently promoted from the bottom rank, corps de ballet, to soloist.)
Seen in snatches throughout the film, the new ballet is sharp, fast, youthful, and ingenious.
“Justin’s work is entertaining to people who don’t care about ballet,” Lipes observed recently by phone.
The push and pull between Peck’s relative inexperience and the company’s extreme professionalism is one of the film’s subplots. We’re watching him learn: The camera lingers on his face, which often wears a blank and slightly anxious expression.
“There are a lot of really quiet, almost desolate moments in the film,” Peck said recently, “but in my head there are so many thoughts, all going at once. It’s never quiet in there.”
We see Peck sweating through daily ballet class, trying out steps alone in a studio with a boombox, drawing sketches in a notebook, watching and correcting the dancers. Then, as the premiere draws near, the canvas widens from the studio to the theater-wide effort to get a production to the stage. Lipes captures tasks we seldom think of, the dyeing and cutting of fabrics for costumes, the samurai-like makeup applied by the dancers before a performance, the lighting cues, the physical therapy sessions to mend sore ankles.
The footage for “Ballet 422” was shot over the course of three months, usually with a single digital camera, sometimes two. In all, Lipes captured about 40 hours of film. The access granted is no doubt partly the result of the involvement of Ellen Bar, the film’s coproducer (with Anna Rose Holmer), who is also the in-house director of media projects at New York City Ballet. Before taking that position, Bar danced in the company for 13 years. She knows the place and the people who work there intimately.
“In order to make a successful dance film you really need the expertise of both sides,” she wrote recently via e-mail. Lipes and Bar met while making another movie, “NY Export: Opus Jazz” (2010), an adaptation of a ballet by Jerome Robbins shot in the streets of New York.
In some ways, “Ballet 422” recalls Frederick Wiseman’s celebrated 2009 documentary “La Danse,” which focused on the Paris Opera Ballet. Like Wiseman, Lipes doesn’t provide narration — with the exception of titles marking the countdown to the premiere — or identify the people onscreen or the music we’re hearing. But in a departure from Wiseman’s more wide-ranging style, the director’s gaze here is focused on a single person and the task at hand. “La Danse” also went on for more than 2½ hours; “Ballet 422” clocks in at 75 minutes.
An impressive level of perfectionism pervades the process on view at New York City Ballet. Micro-adjustments are made until the final moments. One scene depicts an unfortunate dancer repeating a short sequence of arm movements. After each attempt, Peck says “no.” This goes on for an uncomfortably long time.
“I didn’t realize how a choreographer could be so incredibly clear and change the performance in front of him without actually changing the steps,” Lipes says of this process.
Oddly, the one person we never see in the film is the company’s artistic director, Peter Martins.
“New York City Ballet is amazing,” says Lipes, “in that they commission these choreographers and just let them do whatever they want. Peter doesn’t get in the way.” Or, as Peck puts it, “it’s sink or swim.” Only the most competent artists, working at the top of their game, can survive in such an environment. One can see this reflected in the dancers: Their work is unrelenting, and they are astonishingly good. As the film proves, Peck is more than up to the challenge. He recently premiered his eighth work for City Ballet; to add to the pressure, on opening night, he had to jump in for an injured dancer.
Lipes, who says he doesn’t have a particular interest in dance, is currently working on several original scripts, including one for a costume drama about the Civil War, which was selected for the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs. He has also directed several episodes of the HBO series “Girls” and was the cinematographer for the 2011 film “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” as well as an upcoming Judd Apatow movie, “Trainwreck.” On the evidence of “Ballet 422” and “NY Export,” one of his talents seems to be the ability to simply melt into the background and observe the world around him, with a keen eye. This story tells itself. As Bar says: “What they do is already so amazing — it doesn’t need embellishment.”