Justin Peck may be a dedicated dance artist, but on his visits to Miami he still did the kinds of things that tourists do here. He went to the beach. He marveled at the street murals in Wynwood.
But since Peck is a choreographer, those experiences didn’t just stay in his head or on his Facebook page. They fed into Heatscape, the new dance he has made for Miami City Ballet. The ballet opens at West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts this weekend before coming to Miami and Fort Lauderdale in April to wrap MCB’s season.
A collaboration between Peck, the young resident choreographer of New York City Ballet who is the hottest new talent in classical dance, and famed street muralist Shepard Fairey, who did the set, Heatscape is one of the most high-profile premieres in MCB’s history.
The title is simultaneously specific and expansive. “I took heat, which is a form of energy and obviously Miami is known for its heat, and then attached scape — it means a place of energy,” Peck, 27, said in an interview at the troupe’s studios.
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The name is also a tribute to Summerspace, a 1958 dance by post-modern choreographer Merce Cunningham, and his boundary-breaking vision.
“The idea behind that piece was the dance space expanding beyond the parameters of the traditional theater,” Peck said. “It’s the thought of [the dancers] extending beyond.”
Peck went outside the studio and his usual focus on abstract concepts like composition and stage space for Heatscape. When he first started working on the dance last March, he visited Wynwood and was intensely struck by the riot of imagery and color on its walls. He was particularly attracted to the giant red and gold Fairey mural that greets visitors entering Wynwood Walls, paying tribute to the late Wynwood developer Tony Goldman. He quickly discovered more of Fairey’s work after that.
“I started to go through Wynwood and looked at all the art and thought his was the most sophisticated,” Peck says. “Then I started to find all these huge murals of his all over the city.” He was eating at a pizzeria on North Miami Avenue in the Design District when he spotted a giant black and white Fairey mandala mural across the street. That motif, of an intricate pattern radiating out from a central image, became key to Heatscape’s composition, making Fairey’s work not simply a backdrop but an integral part of the dance.
Miami City Ballet has been using Peck and Fairey’s (and Wynwood Walls’) cachet not only to promote Heatscape, but to give its own image a hip, youthful boost. They presented Peck with Sufjan Stevens, an alternative musician who did the score for Peck’s breakout 2012 ballet Year of the Rabbit, at a YoungArts salon last June. Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney interviewed Peck for one of MCB’s Open Barre studio presentations last October. And the company produced a slick promotional video for Heatscape showing the dancers, in casual clothes, dancing at Wynwood Walls — the site of the troupe’s fund-raising gala last January.
“There’s a kind of contemporary, modern, very edgy feel to [Peck’s] work that I think young audiences respond to, they get it,” MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez, who commissioned the pas de deux Chutes and Ladders from Peck in early 2013, said in an interview last summer. “So I would like to continue the relationship.” The company will perform Year of the Rabbit next February as part of its 30th anniversary season.
“To me dance and ballet are not so accessible,” Peck said at the Open Barre event. “So taking an extra-accessible symbol like Wynwood is bridging that a little.”
That Fairey — who became famous with his 2008 Barack Obama “Hope” poster and the “Obey Giant” series, an anti-authoritarian street art campaign that sprang from what has become a ubiquitous image of a glowering face — had never worked with dance before did not deter Peck.
“People said you’re not gonna get him, which made me even more determined,” Peck said at Open Barre. They eventually met in L.A., where Fairey lives. At a discussion panel at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in January involving Fairey, Peck and Lopez, Fairey said he connected with Peck and dance in several ways. He liked the choreographer’s experimentation with classic forms, while dance’s physicality and in-the-moment excitement matched the athleticism of skateboarding, one of Fairey’s early loves, and the ephemeral nature of street art, which is so frequently altered or painted over.
“For me it’s about making the piece, being proud, basking in the end result for about 30 seconds and then moving on,” Fairey said at the Guggenheim. “Everything is ephemeral. These dance pieces, that moment of experiencing it first hand — nothing can replicate it. It’s really visceral, exciting, but then it’s time to do the next thing.”
He also liked the idea of working in a new art form and reaching a new audience.
“We’re striving for ... cross-pollination,” Fairey said. “I’m sharing my work with a ballet audience, and they might be excited about street art, and street artists might get excited about ballet.”
At a rehearsal at MCB’s Miami Beach studios last October, Peck wore ballet slippers splitting at the seams, sweatpants and owlish glasses that magnified his quizzical expression. He watched closely as the 17 dancers in Heatscape rushed through a dizzyingly fast, complex sequence, making the studio pop with intricately intersecting patterns. “I didn’t give you a count, but good instincts everyone,” he said at one point. Later, he paused, face wrinkling thoughtfully, as principal dancer Renan Cerdeiro, who plays a central role in the ballet, waited for instructions. “This is not what I planned at all,” Peck said.
Peck prepares meticulously for his ballets, going into what he calls an “Internet hole” to research composers; he read a rare biography of Bohuslav Martinu, a favorite of Peck’s whose first piano concerto accompanies Heatscape. (He used Martinu’s music for Paz de la Jolla, a 2013 ballet for NYCB that also had touches of beachside atmosphere, and was the subject of the documentary Ballet 422.)
Heatscape is experimental in some ways. The dancers run defiantly to the front edge of the stage and back to the rear wall, in a startling burst through the proscenium theater’s fourth wall. Fairey’s mandala shows when the dancers rush into the center, then out, in an expanding and contracting sunburst of movement. Peck calls it radial symmetry — a sharp departure from ballet’s traditional “mirror symmetry,” of pleasing front-facing patterns.
“It’s probably what I’m most interested in as a choreographer, how I can alter and shift and develop the structure of a piece and of the space,” Peck says. “There’s been some radial symmetry in dance, but I wanted to explore it.”
But he also pays homage to ballet and NYCB history, with references to two famous Balanchine ballets: a moment from Apollo, where the young god dances with three muses; and another from Concerto Barocco, where lines of women hop delicately on pointe.
And despite Peck’s focus on formalism, there are emotional and personal touches in Heatscape. Several show up in a duet for Tricia Albertson and Kleber Rebello.
“We stand up suddenly, something has startled us — he took that from a moment he was on the beach and all of a sudden there was this giant cruise ship going by and where did that come from?” says Albertson. Peck gave a more ominous inspiration for another movement, where she pushes up through Rebello’s encircling arms.
“Justin said I should be like breaking through the water to get a breath of air, in kind of a desperate way,” Albertson says. “He comes up with an image for almost every step.”
‘Feels like a team’
Heatscape also draws inspiration from MCB’s dancers. Like many of the choreographers and repetiteurs who’ve worked with the company, Peck praised their closeness and energy. His youth, and the fact that he’s still a member of NYCB himself, helped him get close to the dancers — he even joined them in morning technique class as he prepared to cast the piece.
“It feels like a team to me,” Peck says. “Everyone is working together in a really nice way, which is not common in a ballet company, because it’s a really competitive environment. ... There’s something in the water here.”
The dancers picked up on Peck’s attitude, says principal dancer Patricia Delgado, a leading figure in Heatscape.
“There’s this idea of us as a group, a community, a team, a family — as friends and people more than anything, not so much ballerinas or even dancers,” she says. “He’s brought out a sense of energy and intensity in our dancing I don’t hear when I just listen to the music.”
Their excitement has only grown as they get closer to Heatscape’s debut.
“I can’t wait to see what the backdrop and lighting will do — I’ve never done anything with such a masterwork behind me,” Delgado says. “We’re so ecstatic. It’s like we’ve been waiting for this moment the whole season.”
If you go
What: Miami City Ballet Program IV, with ‘Raymonda Variations,’ ‘The Concert,’ ‘Heatscape’
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach
Info: $25 to $175, 305-929-7010 or miamicityballet.org
Note: Program also includes the company premiere of Jerome Robbins’ renowned comic ballet ‘The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody)’ and George Balanchine’s ‘Raymonda Variations.’ It repeats April 10-12 at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, and April 17-19 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.