Peck, Ratmansky and the Future of American Ballet


(Photo courtesy of Chufan Huang and Jack Mitchell via Getty Images)

By Haley Freeman


The legacy of American ballet begins not in America, but in Russia. The year is 1904 and Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze, better known as George Balanchine, is born. The son of a composer, Balanchine joined the Imperial Ballet School at age nine. Shortly after, he began to choreograph ballets and dance across Europe as a member of the Ballets Russes. In 1933, Lincoln Kirstein invited Balanchine to come with him to America to found a modern, resident ballet company in New York City. At the time, Balanchine was living a hard life in the Soviet Union, so when Kirstein presented an invitation to join him in America, it was an offer Balanchine could not refuse.

(Photo Courtesy of the New York Times)
(Photo Courtesy of the New York Times)

‘But first, a school’

Upon arriving in New York, Balanchine reportedly said to Kirstein, “but first, a school,” and together they formed the School of American Ballet. The school, which still operates today, opened its doors in 1934 and trains dancers to have the necessary skills to perform Balanchine’s ballets. If selected to perform Balanchine’s works professionally, after training at SAB, the dancers were ready to do so.

Kirstein’s vision became reality with Balanchine by his side when they founded the New York City Ballet in 1948. A year later Balanchine hired dancer and Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins as Associate Artistic Director. Over the years Robbins contributed many ballets to the company, many to the compositions of Frédéric Chopin.

(Photo courtesy of the School of American Ballet)
(Photo courtesy of the School of American Ballet)

Balanchine in America

To understand the importance of Balanchine and Kirstein’s company in the United States, we have to understand that at this time ballet was mainly a European art form. Ballet was not familiar to Americans as it is today. There were a few traveling dance troupes, but they were all performing ballets from Europe and had no true identity to distinguish between them. In 1933, San Francisco Ballet became the first ballet company to hold residence in a single location, but they did not have a choreographic identity.

Beginning with “Apollo” and then “Serenade,” as Balanchine’s first ballets choreographed in America, audiences and reviewers were in awe of NYCB and the new “Balanchine ballet.” They had never seen anything like it before. Balanchine was like the Beatles: world-changing.

His dancers’ athleticism allowed them to achieve extreme physical feats with grace. The way the dancer seemed to be playing the music in Balanchine’s ballets contrasted the more placed-pose type dancing popular in Russia at the time. Lastly, the speed of Balanchine’s ballets was never seen before in ballet. His dancers would leap and jump with such precision, always high energy. It is these attributes that defined American ballet.

(Image courtesy of the New York City Ballet)
(Image courtesy of the New York City Ballet)

At the Precipice

NYCB has been maintaining Balanchine’s legacy since. Now, as we approach the company’s 75th anniversary, the company is finding itself at a pivotal point. Balanchine and Kirstein are dead and very few dancers who actually worked with Balanchine remain. We are seeing the first generation of dancers, choreographers, artistic directors and teachers to have not met the illustrious choreographer, affected by his legacy only indirectly. Just recently, the company is starting to break out of its secluded bubble.

After Balanchine and Robbins, in 2014, Justin Peck, a soloist with NYCB at the time, was an up-and-coming choreographer after achieving success at the New York Choreographic Institute.

Peck’s early for NYCB, “In Creases” and “Year of the Rabbit,” were popular, but his choreographic style made him stand out. Using musicality, speed and athleticism — characteristic of Balanchine’s pieces — Peck began to incorporate percussive movement reminiscent of tap dance. I would describe Peck’s choreography as movement that is always swirling or spinning. You will not see much stationary movement in a true Peck-style ballet. 

Peck became the second person to serve as “Resident Choreographer” at NYCB and retired from dancing in 2019 to become a full time choreographer. Peck is a longtime and frequent collaborator with Sufjan Stevens, whose song “Mystery of Love” was featured in the film “Call Me By Your Name” and nominated for an Academy Award in 2018 for Best Original Song.

(Photo courtesy of New York Choreographic Institute)
(Photo courtesy of New York Choreographic Institute)

At this time, the company was mainly doing Balanchine ballets, with a few of Robbins’ works sprinkled in. There was the occasional ballet from an overseas choreographer or an NYCI collaboration. It was rare for a new ballet to be introduced, and few were choreographed by NYCB regulars. But Peck was something new: he was trained in the Balanchine style and came from the company.

In January of 2023 NYCB announced that Alexei Ratmansky would be joining the company as Artist in Residence. Born in Russia, Ratmansky was the director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004 to 2008. Since then, he has choreographed around the world, including for American Ballet Theatre, America’s most known classical ballet company. Ratmansky has previously choreographed for NYCB, and now that he has been given the “Artist in Residence” title, we not only see an outsider join the club, but we also see someone sharing the spotlight with the NYCB golden boy that Peck has become.

(Photo courtesy of
(Photo courtesy of

The First Full-Length Ballet

In January of 2023, Peck premiered his first full-length ballet for NYCB, “Copland Dance Episodes.” This ballet was the first plotless full-length ballet to come from NYCB since Balanchine’s “Jewels” in 1967. 

“Copland” seems like the final test of Peck as a choreographer. The ballet springs off of one of Peck’s previously successful ballets, “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” using more of composer Aaron Copland’s iconic score, new costumes by Ellen Warren and curtain drops by painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson.

Peck’s first full-length work puts his artistic vision alone in charge of entertaining an audience for a full hour and 16 minutes. The whole experience of the theater goer that day would be fully orchestrated and designed by Peck, leaving the question if his work could stand by itself.

My Own Experience

I have seen NYCB perform Peck’s “The Times are Racing” and “Pulcinella Variations” during the company’s yearly season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. While both ballets have very interesting costume design and beautiful moments, I found both ballets to have an inconsistent ebb and flow for their approximately 30 minute length.

Spending a week in New York City in early May this year, I attended a NYCB performance of “Copland Dance Episodes” at the David H. Koch Theater. I loved the ballet and think it showcased the individuality of the dancers well, had beautiful music, and kept great pacing making a wonderful evening of ballet. This ballet cemented in my mind that if Peck wants to continue working with the company, he’ll have a spot there for years to come. However, I wouldn’t say Peck’s ballets display what people find so endearing about Balanchine’s ballets. While Peck might be our closest modern-day alternative, I don’t believe he is a close replacement.

(Photo courtesy of the New York City Ballet)
(Photo courtesy of the New York City Ballet)

Looking to the Future of American Ballet

Ratmansky and Peck are going to be the ones to watch, with more and more choreographers stepping up every season at the NYCB. As the ballet takes on choreographers with different styles, training and influences other than Balanchine, then the pinnacle, home, protector of his work won’t be anymore. Yes, I’m being a bit dramatic and extreme, but as time continues to pass, NYCB will have to make the hardest decision of them all: trail blaze and progress, or continue in tradition.

As a Peck ballet is titled, “The Times Are Racing,” and as the world changes, it will be harder and harder for Balanchine to stay relevant as the art form keeps moving forward. The balance between Balanchine’s legacy and ballet’s legacy is swaying.


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