Sufjan Stevens’s Ballet Lessons

Justin Peck and Sufjan Stevens. Photo: Peter Hapak. Grooming by Tamas Tuzes using Bumble & Bumble at L’Atelier NYC.

Justin Peck and Sufjan Stevens barely knew each other on the night, last year, when Peck first popped the question. After the two were introduced by a mutual friend, Peck, 25, a dancer and budding choreographer at New York City Ballet, took the indie-folk phenom Stevens, 37, to a City Ballet performance, then to dinner at the Breslin, where he nervously revealed his ulterior motive: Peck wanted Stevens to provide the score for Year of the Rabbit, a new ballet he’d been commissioned to create for City Ballet. (It debuts at the David H. Koch Theater on October 5.) “You were mostly quiet,” Peck says to Stevens, still looking a bit nervous in a dark music room at the School of American Ballet as he recalls their first meeting. “I did a lot of talking.”

Stevens wasn’t immediately sold. For one thing, Peck hadn’t asked for the lushly melodic folk music for which Stevens is best known; he wanted to adapt the instrumental electronic songs from Stevens’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, a 2001 abstract concept album based on the Chinese zodiac, which still makes Stevens cringe a little (it was “a ramshackle little personal hobby project,” he says). For another, Stevens was still recovering from his previous major classical outing, The BQE, a symphonic suite that debuted at bam five years ago. “It had its strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “Mostly weaknesses.”

On top of that, “I harbored all kinds of stereotypes about ballet being uptight and archaic,” says Stevens. “I come from a folk tradition where you just dance however you feel comfortable.” Even so, he admits, apart from the tongue-in-cheek dance routine with which he once closed his concerts, “as I got older and more involved with music, I just kind of fell out of touch with my body.”

Despite his misgivings, Stevens attended more ballets with Peck. It was the black-and-white Balanchine-Stravinsky collaborations—the leotard ballets, the purest distillation of movement and music in the company’s repertoire, and Peck’s favorites—that, Stevens says, helped him finally come around to the idea that he could contribute something meaningful to Peck’s vision: “I realized the music itself has such a clear and deliberate and very exciting dynamic and function—it’s just perpetrating and inspiring this pageant of movement onstage.” Peck also took him backstage, which “sort of proved the point for him,” Peck says. “Everyone’s out there performing, smiling, relaxed, comfortable, and then they run offstage and are just keeled over, gasping for air, cursing. It’s quite a contrast.”

Previously, Stevens had worked with arrangers to translate the songs on Enjoy Your Rabbit into pieces for the Osso string quartet (a live performance of those adaptations was Peck’s inspiration for Year of the Rabbit). Last summer, he set to work with an orchestrator, re­arranging the songs again, this time for string orchestra. The results, though far from the original dissonant electronica, are still not quite easy listening. One transition, Peck says, “took us two hours to figure out just how to count it for the dancers.” “And I’m still listening to it and sometimes have a hard time finding the downbeat,” Stevens says.

It’s taken time for Stevens to get used to “the idea that ballet is so physical and athletic, but you don’t show it,” Peck says. By contrast, “in independent music, it’s very low mastery and very high presentation of effort,” Stevens explains. He and Peck have just left a studio rehearsal, and Peck mentions that they’ll see their dancers performing the piece onstage for the first time that weekend. Stevens is mock-­antsy: “What if it’s boring? What if you’re like, ‘There’s not enough color!’ ” he asks, laughing. “Striking the right balance between too simple and too complex, with the movement, is really hard to do,” says Peck. “I think there tends to be too much a lot of the time.” “I don’t believe in too much!” Stevens jokes. “I’m a maximalist.”

It would be understandable if Peck were too: He’s the latest promising star to emerge from City Ballet’s dancing ranks (before him: Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied). In the house that Balanchine and Robbins built, the anxiety of influence looms large and can tempt a young choreographer to throw all his tricks into a first big commission. But with Year of the Rabbit, Peck seems to shrug off that burden. Unlike Wheeldon’s and Millepied’s works, which have their signature motifs, his choreography is harder to pin down. Pedestrian movements (like one Stevens calls “the booty dance”) collide with intricate group patterns. A playful formation turns two ballerinas into a human turnstile; girls slide across the floor as their partners fling them into the wings. Rabbit’s eighteen-person ensemble moves like a well-­coordinated gang of friends (in fact, Peck purposely cast dancers he knew got along well, including his girlfriend). Even to a ballet neophyte like Stevens, the appeal is clear: “I think it feels confident, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously,” he says. “And I’m the same way.”

Justin Peck working with Ashley Bouder and Craig Hall for Year of the Rabbit.Photo: Paul Kolnik/Courtesy of the New York City Ballet

In rehearsal, though, Stevens and Peck seem like they’re in different worlds. Peck is preternaturally calm, standing on a small chair in a Volcom T-shirt and gym pants, surveying the proceedings like a boyish traffic coordinator. Between movements, he gives casual, minimal notes that sometimes sound as if he’s talking to himself (“I’m not so sold on this,” he says, executing a little jump, “but I’ll tweak it”). “People tell me I go into a kind of trance,” he says. “All of the dancers are staring at me, wondering when I’m going to move. Two minutes later, I lift my head, but to me it’s like no time passes.”

Meanwhile, Stevens, in a green SAY YES TO MICHIGAN! T-shirt, hunches in a corner near the piano, head in his score, whispering to the accompanist. The chaos of the rehearsal space is still something to get used to, even for the maximalist. “The dancers are in their sloppy rehearsal clothing, and they’re not shaving—they’re all wearing different colors. They all look like they just woke up! And the understudies are, like, shadow-dancing in the background,” he says. “I can’t even look at it. I have to just look at the score. There’s too many things going on!”

Sufjan Stevens’s Ballet Lessons