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Energetic ‘Turn It Out with Tiler Peck’ is not your mother’s ballet

Tiler Peck’s ballet program “Turn It Out with Tiler Peck” is finishing up its California tour this weekend to resounding applause at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. But the program is not your grandmother’s ballet, or even your mother’s.

Through four differently innovative pieces, Tiler Peck—principal dancer with New York City Ballet—and her excellent and diverse ensemble burn up the stage with innovative flair, dissolving the boundary between ballet and other forms of dance.

Tiler Peck (Photo courtesy SCFTA)

Though there is certainly classical ballet in each piece, none of the program involves tutu-adorned stiffness. Instead, each tonally, visually and emotionally unique dance showcases ballet in different ways, aided by on-stage musicians performing avant-garde music.

The first piece, “Thousandth Orange”—premiering at the Vail Dance Festival in 2019—is like a smooth and decadent bowl of sherbet. Six dancers in pastel-hued tights (designed by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme) fluidly interact in pairs and trios as a quartet of musicians (Basia Bochenek on piano, Emily Call on violin, Mads Falcone on viola, Betsy Rettig on cello) perform a structured score by Caroline Shaw.

Intertwining motion among the six dancers—India Bradley, Chun-Wai Chan, Jovani Furlan, Christopher Grant, Mira Nadon and Quinn Starner—involving high leg lifts, caresses, rolling on the ground and outstretched arms longing for each other would be like a season of “Friends” if the cast (plus one) were ballet dancers.

“Swift Arrow” follows, with sensuous, physical choreography by Alonzo King and rhythmic music by Jason Moran (featuring Bochenek on piano). Peck and Roman Mejia—she in a navy-blue one-piece and he boldly shirtless (costume design by Robert Rosenwasser)—intermingle energetically through unstructured ballet, highlighting not only the beauty of the human body but the human range of emotions.

Both Peck and Mejia are gracefully strong. Peck is rigorously precise yet elegantly organic, with an exuberant stage presence. And Mejia astounds with a physicality that belies flowing flexibility, utterly controlled yet fluid motion. Their master-class duet is a joy from start to finish.

The highlight of the program is “Time Spell,” involving eleven dancers and two astonishing vocalists—Aaron Marcellus and Penelope Wendlandt, with sound design by Christopher Marc.

The subtitle of the piece, which premiered at New York City Center in 2022, describes “intersections of isolation and community,” and its feel is an urban environment in which individuals create a communal rhythm.

Anchoring that feeling is exhilarating tap dance by Michelle Dorrance in heavy shoes, dark pants and work shirt (costuming by Amy Page), creating a grounded rhythm that gets picked up and developed by the vocalists in songs that include “inside armour,” “7 dead” and “fly away” composed by Wendlandt. Her voice soars soulfully and piercingly against Marcellus’s richly rhythmic vocals and breath sounds.

The dance, mostly choreographed by Dorrance, Jillian Meyers and Peck, blends tap, ballet and even hip-hop in a seamless flow as performers enter and exit the stage, sometimes dancing individually and other times collectively. Joining most of the dancers from “Thousandth Orange,” Lex Ishimoto, Myers and Byron Tittle add further unadulteratedly buoyant energy to this substantial piece.

The ginger-haired Meyers is unexpectedly animated throughout, in one sequence seeming to wish she could fly like the four lithe dancers in white body suits moving sinuously together. Starner similarly delights in solo sequences with her confident presence, and Peck throws herself jubilantly into the mix, memorably sharing in Dorrance’s sustained tapping even without tap shoes.

From left: Tiler Peck and Michelle Dorrance in "Turn It Out with Tiler Peck" (Photo courtesy SCFTA)

Post-intermission features a single work with a decidedly darker, after-hours, deconstructed mood. “The Barre Project, Blake Works II”—choreographed by William Forsythe, with music by James Blake and lighting by Brandon Stirling Baker—premiered digitally in 2021 and live at New York City Center in 2022, retaining a digital sequence of a pair of hands interacting on a ballet barre.

Dancers Lex Ishimoto, Brooklyn Mack, Mejia and Peck alternate on a barre positioned on a starkly dark stage, performing precise and strenuous ballet moves in a rapid, unstructured way. The techno-inflected music pounds with a heavy bass that keeps time for the dancers as they unleash themselves with controlled passion, an ode to their collective strength and technical mastery.

Peck is as delightful and interesting to watch in this piece as in the previous. Originally from Bakersfield, California, Peck may have an American girl-next-door look off stage, but on stage she commands like an old-world European prima ballerina.

Though Peck’s California tour of this program has wound down, any of the individual pieces are worth experiencing should they pop up again in New York or elsewhere. Whether you “like” ballet or not, you’ll love the spirit of what Peck and her fellow talented artists can do with music and dance.

“Turn It Out with Tiler Peck” culminated its California tour at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, on Nov. 4 and 5. Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with 2 pauses and a 20-minute intermission.


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