When Justin Peck emerged as a professional choreographer in 2012, he seemed immediately a master of his trade. His dances for the new revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel,” at the Imperial Theater on Broadway, are yet another feather in his cap. Though just 30 years old, he’s already acquired such renown that, in Matthew Lopez’s new play “The Inheritance” (now at the Young Vic in London), “the latest Justin Peck” is spoken of as a must-see New York artistic event.
Mr. Peck remains a dancer (soloist rank) at New York City Ballet, where he has been the resident choreographer since 2014. He makes at least two new ballets for the company (and others around the world) each year, often to new or modern music. His works, polished and contemporary, are energetic through each individual body and in striking ensembles; and they often ask gender questions, with both opposite-sex and same-sex pairings. His main dance language is ballet. But he has also set dancers moving with tap steps in sneakers; in “Carousel,” they’re sometimes barefoot.
In almost every piece he tackles, he adds to his already impressive accomplishments. In “Carousel,” he and the director, Jack O’Brien, handle dancers so that there’s no clear division between them and other actors onstage. And yet he gives us real dance virtuosity and ensembles containing speed and elaborate geometry. Still, though exuberantly executed, the dances don’t stay with me as most of this “Carousel” does.
The hardest part of “Carousel” for a choreographer to bring off is the Act II ballet, witnessed by the dead Billy Bigelow. He sees Louise, his teenage daughter, becoming an angry and bitter outsider, alienated from the social world of her upbringing. This psychodrama can easily seem the most dated part of “Carousel.” Film exists of the original choreography by Agnes de Mille. It looks creaky now, making its points all too obviously and clearly influenced by Martha Graham and Antony Tudor, the two masters of psychological choreography and social consciousness.
But even de Mille’s tendency to overemphasize catches the dream quality that earns this ballet a special place in the overall drama of “Carousel.” Kenneth MacMillan — the master of sex, violence and acrobatic lifts in late 20th-century choreography — went further when he made the dances for Nicholas Hytner’s 1992 production (which reached Broadway in 1994). (MacMillan’s “Carousel” pas de deux still makes a vivid impression when performed out of context, as it did when the Royal Ballet brought it to New York in 2015.)