When Tiler Peck started giving Instagram ballet classes from her mom's kitchen in California this spring — a way of staying in shape and keeping in touch with dance fans — she initially thought maybe 20 people would tune in.
She was startled to discover that thousands of people were joining, from as far away as Iran and India, to take class with one of the world’s top ballerinas. It was that obvious hunger out there for dance, says Peck, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, that inspired her to go farther.
Dance troupes were putting out great digital content, but it wasn’t new work. And theaters were dark, their stages unused. “I was getting so many messages, saying ‘I miss going to the theater so much,’” Peck says. “There was this void there. And I started thinking ... all of our theaters are dark, the stages are empty. Why can’t we put on a performance?”
So Peck gathered together some of her favorite artists, found a theater and a partner in CLI Studios, which specializes in dance education, and launched “A New Stage,” which begins streaming Friday. The first installment stars Peck along with famed Memphis “jookin” dancer Lil Buck, Broadway singer Sierra Boggess, ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack, and the female tap-dancing band Syncopated Ladies.
Noted ballet and Broadway choreographer Christopher Wheeldon contributes a world premiere, choreographed via Zoom, with Peck dancing to vocals by Boggess. Other works are by Chloe Arnold and Jennifer Weber.
Peck, 31, sat down to tell The Associated Press about the project, the challenges of putting it together during a pandemic, and the joy she felt in performing on a stage -- even without an audience. (The interview has been condensed for length.)
AP: It must have been frustrating to not dance for so many months.
PECK: I’m not the kind of person that likes to sit around. As a dancer, these are some pivotal years for me. We don’t get these back. So I, I thought, I’m going to use this time to work with people that I really want to work with. Even if it is over Zoom, you can create ... I was just so grateful to be back in a rehearsal room. Then when we were all on stage, all of us couldn’t believe that we were in a theater. I remember the first time I went center stage, even though it was black, I got chills all over my body.
AP: People know you for ballet, but you actually love the other dance forms you’re using here.
PECK: I grew up doing every style of dance. Actually ballet was my least favorite because I thought, ‘Oh, it’s the most boring.’ And so my whole thing of being a ballerina is to kind of break the barrier down. ... I wanted to have something for everybody in these shows and to get rid of the stigma that every single form has to have its own lane. Because I really don't believe that.
AP: You filmed in a theater, when most are dark. What was that like?
PECK: Safety was literally my first priority because my family really hadn’t left our house in about four or five months, we have my 85-year-old grandmother staying with us. I was not about to take any chances. So everybody was tested. We wore masks. We cleaned every surface. It was crazy, but it made me feel safe. And I wanted to make sure that everybody had that experience.
AP: The dance community has been especially hard hit. So many dancers live paycheck to paycheck.
PECK: Yes. I always say I’m so grateful to have such a big organization like New York City Ballet behind me so that it’s not self-employment work. And I never would have thought I would be in this position. But I feel like because our company is so big and we are at Lincoln Center, it’s going to be one of the hardest things to bring back because it isn’t a little company. So for me, I was like, there's no way I can wait until the next time we get to perform in the company because ... I don’t know when that’s going to be. So I’m just going to use this time. I need to stay creative. I want to be inventive. I want to challenge myself.
AP: Some have said the dance world may never be the same.
PECK: So much of our audience is an older audience. So even when we do go back, I don’t know if those people would feel comfortable being in seats. I think the last few years we’ve been trying to kind of get that new audience and bring works that would appeal to a younger generation to get that new audience. But I do think it’s going to be hard. ... It might be different for a very long time, unfortunately.
AP: Your Instagram classes really seemed to take off.
PECK: The most amazing thing was seeing how many different types of people were taking this class ... People in Africa, Iran, a full family in India. And it was really moving because it was a family effort. My mom (a dance teacher) would help me the night before, and my sister would help me pick out the music. So it became this thing in my household that lifted us up every day.
I think people (also) really took to them because they got to see my personality. I mean, I’m very normal. I think sometimes ballerinas, we get this untouchable or diva-like rep, you know? And that’s so not like me. ... I would make mistakes. And then I'd say, ‘Oh, gosh, guys, I know I told you this and I just did this, really sorry, but I’m human too. Give me a little slack.’ I want them to know this is the real me. In dance, you don’t really get to use your voice.