Eagle Q&A: New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck
Before beginning the biographical and question and answer portion of my interview with New York City Ballet’s superb and sublime principal dancer Tiler Peck, let’s get any Abbott & Costello “who’s on first” confusion out of the way. To use biblical language, Tyler Angle did not beget Tiler Peck, nor did Justin Peck beget Jared Angle. The Angles and one Peck (Tiler) — a bushel and a peck? — are principal dancers with New York City Ballet (NYCB.) Justin Peck is a soloist and choreographer with NYCB. (Don’t even ask about principal dancer Robert Fairchild, who is Tiler Peck’s husband or principal dancer Megan Fairchild, who is Robert’s sister.)
If at times it seems like the names of the entire company, from corps de ballet to soloist to principal, were thought up by Edward Lear or Tom Stoppard just to confuse you, well, you might be right. There are so many colorful, distinctive names. Suffice it to say, the subject of this profile-interview is Tiler with an “i,” as in “incandescent.”
Tiler Peck is a Southern California girl, with a Pepsodent smile, a sweet, coquettish voice and a cheerleader’s enthusiasm. She began studying dance at the age of 2, in Hollywood, with the former Bolshoi Ballet principal Alla Khaniashvili. By 11, she was studying with former NYCB dancers Colleen and Patricia Neary at Conjunctive Point in Culver City. At the age of 12, she moved to New York and entered the School of American Ballet, the official school of the NYCB for most of the 2000-2001 Winter Term. Somehow, before she formally began SAB she also found time to act in “Donnie Darko,” Richard Kelly’s cult classic with another brother-sister team: Jake & Maggie Gyllenhaal and a plethora of young actors about to step into larger roles: Seth Rogen, Jena Malone, Noah Wylie and Drew Barrymore. Peck was also about to step into a larger role, although on a much different, more rarefied stage.
During the summers of 2002 and 2003 she returned to School of American Ballet (SAB.) In the fall of 2003 she became a full-time student, living in the NYCB dormitory in the Rose Building. After that her trajectory was swift and impressive: in September, 2004 she became an apprentice with NYCB. In early 2005 she was promoted to a member of the corps de ballet. In December of 2006 she was promoted to soloist and in 2009 she became a principal. Now, eight years later, Peck is ballet royalty. She has danced in almost the full repertoire, from “Allegro Brillante” to “Who Cares?” During the recently completed NYCB winter season her dance card included “Aurora” in “The Sleeping Beauty;” two world premieres on the same bill: Pontus Lindberg’s “The Shimmering Asphalt” and Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing,” and, for this writer, her most memorable role, the Sleepwalker in Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula,” in which she was partnered by her husband, Robbie Fairchild. If Zeus were to command a ballet performance on Mt. Olympus, this might well be it. In this role, Peck is required to execute runs on point, called bourrees, a series of very small, even steps, that make it seem like the dancer is almost floating. Peck’s flawless mastery of the bourrees, performed with her hair unbound and in a flowing, full-length white robe, combined with Mark Stanley’s eerie, chiaroscuro lighting and the haunting music by Vittorio Rieti (after themes of Vincenzo Bellini) made for one of the winter season’s most striking productions. Peck was both ghostly and sensual — and unforgettable.
Luckily, I got to see Peck dance Princess Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty” (exquisite) and in the two World Premieres mentioned above, plus the aforementioned “La Sonnambula” and “Carousel” (see below.) All four performances highlighted Peck’s ability to segue from languid to exuberant with ease and confidence. Whether it’s Balanchine, Robbins, Martins or Wheeldon, Peck always dances with daring, elegance and aplomb.
In the season’s final week, she danced “Julie Jordan” in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carousel,” a distillation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Broadway musical. From the second night of the winter season, Jan. 18, when she danced in “Allegro Brillante” to the closing matinee on February 26, when she danced her final “Carousel,” Peck danced in 14 performances — 19 individual ballets — this season. She is the James Brown of ballet.
Recently, at Indie Cafe, on the Lincoln Center campus, I sat down with Peck, to talk about her career, the past season, what she has planned between now and spring season (lots!) and the direction she thinks she might go once her dancing career ends. I began our conversation by asking her about that direction in the context of the activewear line she has designed for Body Wrappers.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Eagle: What was the genesis of your association with Body Wrappers?
Tiler Peck: Body Wrappers reached out to me. It arose out of a photo shoot. Maria Kowroski [another NYCB principal dancer] had worked with them. Wendy Whelan [a celebrated NYCB principal, who retired from NYCB in 2014] had been working with them too, but there was a shoot when she couldn’t go due to injury and they asked me if I’d like to do the shoot. That was 2009, which was also when I was first on the Body Wrappers cover. Then it evolved from there, with my being asked for my ideas about design. Then they asked if I’d like to start my own line and be a brand ambassador. They wanted my expertise. You know, (laughing) I live almost my entire life in a leotard, so I wanted to design something that’s comfortable, efficient, something that you’re not always having to tug it down — because there’s nothing more annoying for a dancer then having to always being adjusting your leotard.
Eagle: So, you’re very “hands-on” with Body Wrappers.
TP: Yes, definitely. In fact, I was there [at the showroom] earlier this week. I try on every garment. Even though they cut everything the same way, there are adjustments that often need to be made. For example, black always tends to make a garment seem smaller, so I’ll point out that there’s not enough lace here or the stitching is too tight at the butt. I get to pick out all of the fabrics and the colors, because if it’s going to have my name on it I want it to be perfect.
Eagle: Is fashion a direction you might take when your dance career ends?
TP: Well I’ve always loved fashion. I always tell Robbie [husband Robert Fairchild] “Oh, it would be so much fun to be a stylist.” But, truthfully, when Body Wrappers first approached me about starting a line, I didn’t know if I’d be any good. I said “Listen, I’ll just start with one or two designs, see if they turn out well and then see if anybody likes them. And then, happily, everybody did like them and it’s just taken off. It does take a lot of energy, because we’re always working on the “next” design. In fact, I think right now we’re about a year out.
Eagle: Putting aside for the moment the designing, are there other pursuits that interest you and Robbie collectively?
TP: We talk about it all the time; we both know that once our ballet careers are over we definitely want to do Broadway. Musical comedies have a longevity that’s different from ballet. And we’ve both already done musicals and we love it. (From March 2015 to March 2106, Fairchild danced the Gene Kelly-originated role of Jerry Mulligan in “An American in Paris” on Broadway and Peck has appeared in two Susan Stroman directed and choreographed musicals “The Music Man,” when she was 11, and more recently, playing the young Marie van Goethem, who was immortalized in a Degas statue, in “Little Dancer,” which played the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2014, but has yet to come to Broadway.) We also want to choreograph, but only as a team. I’m also organizing an evening of dance in July at the Music Center [in Los Angeles] where I had to choose the repertoire, I had to pick the dancers. I’ve loved doing that and I could also see doing what Damian does at Vail [Damian Woetzel, former NYCB principal, runs the Vail Dance Festival.]
Eagle: Let’s talk about your career with NYCB. You’ve danced featured roles in Balanchine, Robbins, Martins, Wheeldon. Any favorite ballets stand out?
TP: Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.” What’s interesting is that the music was originally part of “Swan Lake.” and Balanchine chose to take a small section of the score and make an amazing, 12-minute ballet. As I say on the NYCB website, every time I do it I find out something I didn’t know about my dancing. Also, what I love about “Tschai Pas” is that it takes a lot of risks and for me that means trust — how much you can trust your partner, how much you can trust yourself. I never get tired of dancing it.
Eagle: What are some other favorite roles?
TP: Well, as I mentioned when you came backstage the other night, I love “Carousel.” That’s another role I never tire of dancing. The lyricism, the innocence, the beauty of Rodgers music. And, again, there’s that Broadway connection.
Eagle: Speaking of Broadway, what was it like for you to watch Robbie in “An American in Paris.”
TP: I was so happy for him. It was the perfect show for him because (laughing) he’s a real ham and there were two big production numbers that fit him perfectly — “Fidgety Feet” and “Beginner’s Luck.” What was difficult was the timing: we had gotten married in June of 2014; right after our wedding I went to Washington to workshop “Little Dancer” and Robbie went to Paris for the pre-Broadway engagement of “An American in Paris.” That was challenging.
Eagle: Because you had already been in “The Music Man” on Broadway before Robbie got “An American in Paris,” were you able to give him any pointers?
TP: (Laughing) Well, when I did “The Music Man” I was 11 years old, so, for me, at that age, it was simply fun. But what I was able to help Robbie with, while he was rehearsing “An American in Paris” during the day and then rehearsing for City Ballet at night, was teaching him to balance his schedule, keeping him on course but also convincing him to allow himself down-time.
Eagle: Regarding down-time, what do you and Robbie do on your days off?
TP: Well, ironically enough lately we’ve been spending a lot of time in Brooklyn. Several of our best friends have moved there, to the Heights in particular, so we’ve been discovering the borough and, in fact, the thought of moving there has crossed our minds!
Eagle:If you do, you can dance an alfresco pas de deux on the Promenade!
Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild can be seen in the New York City Ballet Spring season, which begins April 18 and runs through May 28. For more information go to www.nycballet.com.
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