For those familiar with choreographer Justin Peck’s work for The National’s “Dark Side of the Gym” music video, the spare stage and stadium-style lights were a clue. The first ticking notes from yet another song by The National, “Guilty Party,” were another. And still, when Peck and former Miami City Ballet principal Patricia Delgado walked intently on stage, the crowd gathered at last Wednesday’s “Fall for Dance” performance at New York City Center cheered with the surprised glee of seeing an adored friend or idol in person.
Peck, who The New York Times called “one of the most sought-after dance makers in the world” in a sweeping profile published last May, creates ballets that imbue the most complicated gestures with intimate honesty and tangible cool. This ability — or gift, you could say — has helped his work resonate with audiences outside of velvet-lined auditoriums.
Take his “Dark Side of the Gym” choreography as an example. Peck and Delgado performed the work, which originated as a music video set in a balloon-filled high school gym, live last week on a tiny platform alongside The National on “The Tonight Show.” The following evening they staged the piece on City Center’s deep, grand stage. In all three forms, the choreography is adapted to accommodate the space, dancers and intended audience — a testament to the translatability of the work and its wide appeal.
For his City Center commission, Peck expanded “Dark Side of the Gym” to include choreography set to “Guilty Party” — collectively titled “Sleep Well Beast,” a reference to The National’s album from which both songs are drawn. Serving as a sort of prelude to “Dark Side,” “Guilty Party” casts a darker tone over the romantic narrative teased out in “Dark Side.” The new choreography, which captures the loneliness and pain of a relationship on a downswing, centers on the dynamic between Delgado and Peck, in which the two dancers occupy the same stage, often dancing the same choreography, but in separate worlds.
Here, they move together but barely touch (the slightest graze of the fingertips in “Guilty Party” feels more like a ghost encounter than a connection between two living people). This tension agitates the traditional expectations associated with a pas de deux, building a longing for contact that makes the even the most saccharine aspects of “Dark Side” bittersweet.
Beyond the storyline that unites the two pieces, Peck’s gestural vocabulary creates a cohesive language that visually bonds the sections. This is best explained in his musicality. At times frenetic and seemingly discordant, Peck’s quicker beats explode alongside drums buried deep in the music, mirroring the strain between the dancers; at others, he melts into notes, picking up the dip of a lap steel.
Like Peck’s other works, there’s a lot of running, of breaking up movement with “human moments” like breathing and hugging. At times Peck and Delgado pace around one another, drawing the energy in the room inward. The work, however, is not lacking in classical proficiency. Rather, the classical articulations are woven so intricately and organically with the pedestrian movements that they level to a natural state, as if the traditional ballet choreography is as natural as, say, walking.
Most striking is how Peck’s partnering squares gender roles — never once does it feel like Peck is a passive instrument presenting Delgado (in fact, at times, it’s Delgado who supports and guides Peck). Instead, their bodies move as if a deeper force is pulling them together out of necessity. It’s this performance of true connection and shared experience that gives an emotional core to the piece. Aided by the real-life romance between Peck and Delgado (it’s worth mentioning here that they are engaged), it’s hard not to fall in love with the duet, even with the underlying suggestion of impending heartache.
Top Image: Justin Peck and Patricia Delgado in "Sleep Well Beast." Photo: Paula Lobo.