As the resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet—and the youngest one in the company’s history—Justin Peck is no novice when it comes to choreography. Yet, when it came to making his Broadway bow with Carousel, he felt a twinge of inexperience. “I actually had trouble writing my [Playbill] bio,” he says with a laugh, “I hadn't really done anything.” (All perspective, we suppose.)
But with his work on the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Peck has done more than enough to earn his place in the theatre—plus 2018 Drama Desk and Tony nominations to boot. Here, Peck breaks down the motivations behind his intricate choreography, the research he did to create the world of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, and the intention behind key moments.
Dance is a centerpiece of this production in a way that it hadn’t been in previous ones. Is there a choreographic throughline for you that connects all of the numbers into one piece?
Justin Peck: It's really about keeping the dance-pulse alive throughout the production. This dance-pulse adds to the vigor of the show—both in the more obvious full-blown dance numbers as well as in moments of transition or even stillness. That “movement energy” is something sustained by the entire cast, and it glows in a way that I hope audiences feel in both voluntary and involuntary ways.
Here, you've used the Overture like a Prologue, similar to what Jerome Robbins did in West Side Story. Are there other places you took a page from of his book?
I’m always looking to learn from Jerome Robbins. I think the way Robbins prioritizes and values movement-as-storytelling is a quality that I learned a great deal from. It helped to give me the confidence to pursue that philosophy in my own unique way. [The Prologue is] all about introducing the community, the sense of place, the major characters, and how all of these elements relate to each other. It allows the audience to gain their bearings, through sweeping movement-as-storytelling. Once they're brought into that sense of place and character, the rest of the show is able to catapult forward in an exciting way.
With “Blow High, Blow Low,” you created a shorthand dance language that exists among those characters. Where did that language come from?
The choreographic gestures in “Blow High, Blow Low” are inspired by actual practical tasks, activities, and physical movements that would take place on a whaling ship. Its a lot of twisting, rotating, rope-rolling, pulley-system mechanics, labor-intense tasks that sometimes take three or four men to complete— navigating through the seas, etc. The movement is also inspired by when these sailors would be out at sea for weeks (or sometimes months) at a time, waiting for their whale catch, and finding ways to entertain themselves by making up games, crafting little artifacts, communicating with each other, and competing with one another to pass the time. This was all very much inspired by research I did at the Whaling Museum in Nantucket [Massachusetts] and elsewhere. The movement language becomes a whole representation and glimpse into a certain kind of sailor ecology that existed within that time and community.
There are some stunning images in that number as well—the tide rolling, the bow of a ship. Why did you want to use bodies in this way to create literal pictures?
I have always found there to be something very novel and charming about using movement to create tangible shapes. It’s something I've admired in other people’s work and it’s something I’ve aspired to include in my own. It allows the audience to connect to dance in a way that is familiar to them by linking the viewer and the movement through tangible (and sometimes mundane) imagery.
Act 2 features a lengthy story ballet sequence. Did that differ from a typical ballet?
Stylistically, the ballet section felt the most similar to the type of work I create at New York City Ballet. Nonetheless, the ballet section of Carousel was actually the most crucial movement-as-storytelling section in the entire musical. It is a pivotal moment that gives the main character, Billy, the impetus he needs to keep progressing through the storyline. So that became the number one priority with choreographing this section.
The choreography of the whole show floats—there are lots of jumps, jump landings out of turns, a true buoyancy. Why does Carousel live in that upwards, bouncing, floating world for you?
I think it might have to do with the physical nature of a carousel. The rotational energy, the buoyancy of the horses, the curving twisting architecture, the strong structural basis, the experiential movement plus music that comes with riding a carousel. All that is alive, pulsing, and present in the dance movement of the show. It’s an undercurrent that helps to contribute a certain life that is unique to this production.