Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing”: Biting, But Not Too Hard

by Paddy Johnson on February 1, 2017 Reviews

Tiler Peck The Times Are Racing (World Premiere) Choreography by: Justin Peck Music by: Dan Deacon New York City Ballet Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik

Tiler Peck, “The Times Are Racing”, (World Premiere), Choreography by: Justin Peck, Music by: Dan Deacon, New York City Ballet, Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik

It’s hard to imagine a ballet with more buzz than “The Times Are Racing”. Currently playing at the New York City Ballet (on through February 4th), the piece is choreographed by 29 year old wonderkind Justin Peck.  Peck has created over 25 works for the New York City Ballet and beyond and collaborated with artists such as Jules de Balincourt, Sterling Ruby and Shepard Fairey. Leading up to the premiere, he was the subject of three New York Times articles, and last April, the subject of a Vanity Fair article that ran with the headline, “Is Justin Peck Making Ballet Cool Again?” In short, he’s an art star.

I didn’t know all that before going to see the ballet, though. I went because I knew Peck drew the score from “America” (2012), a moving electronic album by Dan Deacon that was inspired by his own disappointment with the political system. I also knew that the costumes were designed by Humberto Leon, the fashion designer for Open Ceremony a retailer known for working with artists and personalities such as Chloë Sevigny and Spike Jonze. So, when I saw the trailer featuring Peck and Robert Fairchild dancing in sneakers in the subway, I figured it wouldn’t be your average ballet.  

To be sure, “The Times Are Racing” is no Swan Lake (also at The New York City Ballet). But does the production live up to Peck’s reputation for genius?  There’s no short answer to this question in part because the ballet is what successful art would look like in a parallel universe where a centrist Democrat vision was still the norm. Hillary Clinton would have won the election, and Deacon’s “America”, which was penned out of post-occupy frustrations would still reflect the United States we know.  

But that’s not the world we live in, so the performance ends up a mixed bag of success and failures. As a blend of ballet, tap and hip hop, it’s hard to imagine a better piece. As an expression of the current moment—a concept Peck attributes to the work, “The Times Are Racing” leaves much to be desired.

The piece begins with the dancers making cluster like formations in which they move from crouching positions to stretched out standing poses. Each dancer wears different street clothing outfits, which oddly enough given the show’s hip credentials may represent the greatest weakness of the piece. The costumes have a dated “West Side Story meets Bushwick” look. Half the time the clothing, which is often loose and sometimes includes trench coats, does little more than obscure the view of the dancer’s movements.

From there, Deacon’s music only grows more intense, and we watch dancers run around each other and lift one another up in what resembled a cross between a frantic populist celebration and a race to work. I don’t think that was the interpretation Peck was going for. Peck has said the piece is a reflection of our time, and the text on four of the dancer’s shirts—”Defy”, “Protest”, “Unite”, “Fight”—suggests some act of resistance.  

That barely registered for me, though, because the dancing itself rarely evokes what I’d think of protest or fighting. In fact, it often reads more like a young Manhattan gentrifiers narrative, in which a cast of mostly white dancers celebrate the privilege of creative life in Brooklyn and Queens. Many of the Fred Astaire soft-shoe-like movements feel oddly optimistic, the clothes are all a little too nice, and thanks to the promo casting dancers in the new Hudson Yards subway stop, it’s hard not to mentally cast the performers as commuters to condo land.

None of this, though, hindered my enjoyment of the piece. More often than not I found myself frantically writing notes marveling over the technical and creative proficiency of the dancers. No movement seemed unpracticed or sloppy. And there are some incredible moments in the piece that do start to get at the concept, from the ceremonial-like parading of trench coats likes capes in a bullfight to an extended sequence in which a pair of dancers continually stand on one arm while kicking both feet up in the air. If there were a promo video capturing these movements I’d watch it repeatedly.

I wouldn’t, however, watch the entire performance multiple times. It’s beautiful, but ultimately doesn’t hold together outside these shorter moments. And that may be no fault of Peck’s. The performance was conceived before Trump was president, and although the young choreographer changed course once he was elected, “The Times Are Racing” still reads like a time capsule for neoliberal America.  I don’t want to characterize this quality as a necessarily bad, but it’s not what’s needed in Trump’s America.  The stakes are different now and like Peck, we’re all racing to catch up.

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