A surprising statement from the director of the new vérité documentary Ballet 422 (Out today), as well as the 2010 film version of legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz (2010).
“But what I am a huge fan of—and what I’m fascinated by—are the dancers and how hard they work, how their careers are so short, but they put everything into it.”
The 33-year-old has spent the past few years finding creative footing as a cinematographer—Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Tiny Furniture (2010)—and a director—Girls (2o12 ), Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same (2009). His documentary Ballet 422 on wunderkind NYCB choreographer Justin Peck is his first theatrical release as a director.
In Ballet 422, a then-25-year-old Justin Peck has been given the chance to helm NYCB’s 422nd new ballet. The film takes you through the first rehearsal to the final premiere, and though there’s enough captivating dancing to excite ballet enthusiasts, the film really is about Peck. His gaze rivals Rodin’s “The Thinker” as it views and evaluates each grand jeté and pirouette. Though engulfed in a colorful whirlwind of dancers and burdened with all the other pieces that need to snap into place for a successful performance, he never loses his focus or calm—but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t stumble along the way.
“At the time, he was a prodigy, but he hadn’t really proven himself yet,” explains Lipes about his decision to shoot a movie about Peck. “It’s interesting just seeing a younger person navigate his way through that institution and make what [he] wants to make. There are people I consider masters of their craft…but you don’t get to see them when they were not that. There’s a very large part of their life when they’re figuring out how to get there and what to do and how to behave. This film kind of captures that very special moment. I think that feeling of finding your way through this creative situation that you’re in… I totally relate to that, so that was what was interesting to me.”
If there was a Ballet 422-like pivotal moment in Lipes’ career, perhaps it was when he was asked by Lena Dunham to direct the first season of HBO’s Girls after shooting Tiny Furniture.
“When that happened I didn’t really believe it. I was shooting [Martha Marcy May Marlene], and Lena kept calling me being like, ‘So, we’re going to do this pilot for HBO,’ and was like, ‘Ok…sure.’” He makes a skeptical face. ‘“No, no, it’s going to happen really soon.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, that’s awesome, but they’re not going to hire me to do that.’ It took me a long time to believe that it was actually happening. And then it did, and I kept thinking I was going to get fired. As soon as I walk on set, they’re going to realize I don’t know what I’m doing. I’d never worked on a union shoot before or anything, so I assumed I was going to get fired immediately. After the first day of shooting the pilot, one of the executive producers came up to me and asked me if I wanted to direct the show if it got picked up.”
Since the filming of Ballet 422, Justin Peck was named NYCB’s official resident choreographer and has been heralded by the New York Times as, “the third important choreographer to have emerged in classical ballet this century.”
And Lipes just finished shooting a major studio film, Trainwreck—helmed by Judd Apatow—this past summer.
“It was a really big jump up in scale for me,” he says. “That’s definitely the biggest film I’ve done by about 40 times.”
This year, the director is staring down an unfamiliar role: he and his wife, Ellen Bar—former dancer and current director of media projects at the New York City Ballet—are expecting a baby.
“Growing up!” as Lipes puts it.