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Five Questions With New York City Ballet's Justin Peck

Dancers from the New York City Ballet perform to choreographer Justin Peck's "In Creases."
Paul Kolnik
Dancers from the New York City Ballet perform to choreographer Justin Peck's "In Creases."

NYCB's resident choreographer answers questions from his hometown ballet students

Five Questions With New York City Ballet's Justin Peck
Five Questions With New York City Ballet's Justin Peck GUESTS:Justin Peck, choreographer, New York City Ballet Nina Garin, editor/producer, KPBS Arts Calendar

Ballet has a reputation for being highbrow, unapproachable and not very relatable.

But if anyone can help change that perception, it's former San Diegan Justin Peck, resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet.

Along with staging original and innovative pieces for the prestigious ballet company, the 27-year-old is taking dance out of the confines of a traditional theater. In the last few months, Peck has brought ballet everywhere from a New York Fashion Week runway show to the streets of Broadway.

"I think it's interesting for people to be exposed to ballet in areas they wouldn't necessarily expect to see it," Peck said in a phone interview from New York. "There's also something to be gained from showing ballet movement up close. There's something that can really resonate about the energy of a dancer that close up. I think that can work to inspire and interest people in the form."

Though there aren't any San Diego street performances - or even local visits - on Peck's agenda, one of the first pieces he ever created for NYCB, "In Creases," will be performed at the San Diego Civic Theatre on Oct. 30. Also on the program will be works by other esteemed choreographers such as Peter Martins and Christopher Wheeldon.

Justin Peck and Janie Taylor for The Block Magazine

In honor of NYCB's rare San Diego appearance, some local ballet students submitted questions for Peck, who also performs with the company as a dancer.

Peck trained at the San Diego-based California Ballet School before joining the School of American Ballet in New York at age 15.

Here's what he had to say:

Q: Was it scary moving to New York as a teenager?

A: For me, it was something that I was so excited about. I grew up going on vacations with my family to New York every summer, and it's something that I always looked forward to. They’d take me to theater and shows and interesting restaurants, so I was genuinely really excited to move there. And SAB has a fantastic kind of boarding school/dorm situation that’s really safe and well developed, so it wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds when you say you’re moving to New York City as a teen.

Q: How many times have you done "The Nutcracker?"

A: Oh my God, how many times? Well, at NYCB we do almost 50 "Nutcrackers" a year. The first few years I was in the company, I would do every single performance, so that’s 150 right there. And then I’ve been doing it for, let’s see, 9 years? As you start to get more seniority, you get more challenging parts with fewer performances, so now I’m down to maybe 20 performances a year, so I would guess 250?

Q: What's the best costume you've ever worn? What about the worst?

A: Let's see, the best...in our version of "The Sleeping Beauty," we have four suitors and one of them is Native American. I got to wear this awesome kind of like superhero Native American costume that made me feel like a million bucks.

As for my least favorite, I’d have to go with Mother Ginger in "The Nutcracker." That is a super challenging costume because it’s an 80-pound dress that you have to wear, and at the same time you have to wear stilts and have full-on drag makeup. It’s a very high maintenance and uncomfortable costume, and beyond that you have eight little kids walking underneath the skirt.

Q: How did you balance school and ballet?

A: When you train at SAB, they team up with a couple of local high schools that provide solid academic courses, so I graduated from one of those schools. And then I even went on to study part time for a couple years (through the School of General Studies) at Columbia University. There are actually quite a few ballet dancers who pursue higher education at either Columbia or Fordham University, where you can take one or two courses at a time and eventually work toward a degree. Since I’ve been much more consumed with choreography I’ve had to put a hold on my college education, but it’s doable.

Q: Do you have a favorite San Diego dancer?

A: Hmmm, I've gotta reach deep into the vault...that seems like a lifetime ago. I really enjoyed watching a ballerina named Denise Dabrowski who used to dance at California Ballet. She was a beautiful ballerina and role model for a lot of young dancers.

New York City Ballet's one-night-only showcase happens at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30. In the audience will be close to 500 students from the San Diego Unified School District and various colleges, thanks to the La Jolla Music Society's Concert Ticket Program, an outreach of its education programs.