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Spotlight: Jody Lee Lipes, Director/Cinematographer, ‘Ballet 422’

Lipes worked with small Canon EOS C300 cameras for the most part and shot entirely in available light to keep a low profile.

Director/cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ new feature Ballet 422 takes an intimate look at a rising star in the world of choreography, 25-year-old Justin Peck, as he takes on the honor of directing the New York City Ballet’s 422nd new show, Paz de la Jolla. The documentary, which will premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, shows Peck negotiating the vast responsibilities involved in staging a new ballet. Lipes worked with small Canon EOS C300 cameras for the most part and shot entirely in available light to keep a low profile. The film was edited by Saela Davis.

How did you choose the subject?

Jody Lee Lipes: I co-directed [with Henry Joost] a film in 2010, NY Export: Opus Jazz, which starred the New York City Ballet. The producer of that film [New York City Ballet director of media projects Ellen Bar], who’s now my wife, introduced me to that world. I really didn’t know much about it before that, but as I learned, I became fascinated by the whole process.

Did you go into production with some kind of narrative or structure in mind?

No. I tried to go in without preconceived notions. We couldn’t afford to shoot every moment of every rehearsal, so Ellen was instrumental in helping me figure out what days were most important to shoot. But once we were there, the idea was just to be present, to be ready to react.

Jody Lee Lipes.

Almost the whole thing is shot handheld. Was that an aesthetic choice? A practical one?

Both. I definitely think it’s an appropriate style for the kind of film it is, but also I just wanted everyone to get used to us being there. That would have been less likely to happen with a lot of gear. Also, ballet rehearsal spaces use what they call “dance floor,” a malleable material that moves a lot when the dancers are working, so a tripod wouldn’t work very well, unless you want it to shake all the time.

Knowing nothing about ballet, I’d have expected more drama and yelling than the mostly very businesslike atmosphere.

People are used to seeing a very heated version of the ballet world where people are crying, but New York City Ballet isn’t like that. There’s tension and subtlety when people are trying so hard to be good at what they do. And at this point, Justin was still new and learning how to move in that role and talk to collaborators, and we capture that in the film. But you don’t find a lot of times when people are just screaming at each other.