‘I couldn’t even move my eyeballs’: how dancer Tiler Peck stepped back to the barre

The New York City Ballet star talks about her thrilling lockdown collaboration with master choreographer William Forsythe – and the injury that almost ended her career

Possibly the best piece of dance to come out of lockdown is William Forsythe’s The Barre Project. This half-hour film set to the music of James Blake transforms something basic and well-worn – the ballet dancer’s daily exercises at the barre – into something completely fresh. It is short but magnificently satisfying, and thrilling in its low-key virtuosity.

Forsythe is a master choreographer, but The Barre Project’s brilliance is in large part down to its central dancer, Tiler Peck, a principal with the New York City Ballet. Peck is breezily effortless even at top speed, titanium-strong, crystalline in clarity. She’s also a dancer of warmth and connection, that California-girl sunniness in evidence when she Zooms from her apartment in New York. She has just arrived back from the west coast, where she spent the last year teaching a hugely successful Instagram ballet class from her parents’ kitchen, garnering celebrity fans and an increasing public profile.

Not someone to wait around for things to happen, Peck was the instigator of The Barre Project, having longed for years to work with Forsythe. The feeling was mutual, but the pair’s busy schedules had prevented it happening. So when lockdown hit, she dropped him a text: “Bill, what are you up to?” They started the next day, working online for three months, four hours a day – bringing in the dancers Lex Ishimoto, Brooklyn Mack and Roman Mejia, too –and she’s rapturous about the experience. “Working with Bill is like a masterclass every single day,” she says, and their joy comes through vividly in the film. “He called me yesterday, saying, ‘I think I’m having withdrawals,’ says Peck. “I was like, ‘Me, too!’”

Brooklyn Mack and Tiler Peck in The Barre Project.
Rapturous … Brooklyn Mack and Tiler Peck in The Barre Project. Photograph: CLI Studios

While some dancers appreciated the enforced break from non-stop rehearsing and performing, Peck has spent the last year going full pelt, having already been forced off the stage by injury only a year earlier. “These are the golden years,” says the 32-year-old. “I can’t take another year off – I just got back!” It’s almost unbelievable that she did get back, considering the severity of Peck’s injury, a herniated disc. She woke up one day in April 2019 with her neck completely locked, in so much pain “I could literally not even move my eyeballs”. A succession of doctors told Peck she would never dance again, or even walk, if she was bumped the wrong way.

Peck tried various specialists, but in the end she credits her recovery partly to an energy healer, who got her back on stage in seven months. She knows how cranky it may sound. “I would have been the first person to say, ‘That can’t work’,” she laughs, but she swears by it now. “It’s crazy not to think that the mind and body are so connected,” she says. Forty-five minutes of each session would be talking, her therapist watching how different subjects affected her body and made her neck tighten. “Then it would be, ‘OK, this is what we need to talk through.’ And I really feel like that’s what healed me,” she says.

Peck had been through major life shifts in the couple of years before the injury. A split from her husband, dancer Robbie Fairchild, was very public (“Our wedding was in Martha Stewart Weddings”) and they delved into all of life in her sessions, not just the injury. The experience changed “the way I appreciate everything”, she says, especially being on stage. “My first show back, I felt there was a generosity to my dancing that hadn’t been there before.”

Her body will never be the same. “I can never look completely down or up without using my upper body. Those motions don’t exist for me,” she says. But whipping her head repeatedly in a circle during the famous 32 fouetté turns of Swan Lake has proved surprisingly unproblematic. And her drive remains undiminished. That quality is deeply embedded: Peck’s mother is a former dancer and gymnast, her dad teaches high school football, her older sister is a high school principal; they’re all sporty and competitive. “When any of my friends come home and we play games in the backyard, they call it the Peck Olympics, because everybody is 110%, it’s hysterical. My mom taught me everything at the beginning and her mentality was, if you’re not going to put your all into it, best not to do it.”

Peck wasn’t even very interested in ballet at first, preferring jazz. “I thought it was the most boring dance style.” But that’s how her brain works, she says, to pursue the hardest challenge. “I definitely feel like I was born with the gift to dance,” she says. “But the amount of self-motivation and determination I have is off the charts. Nothing was ever good enough.” That determination led to her moving to New York aged 11, with her grandmother, to dance on Broadway in The Music Man, then to join New York City Ballet at 15. She was made principal at the precocious age of 20.

Some of those messages about motivation she’s passing on in her first children’s book, Katarina Ballerina, written with Kyle Harris, with whom she starred in the musical Little Dancer. The book’s about a girl who dreams of being a dancer but doesn’t have the perfect body. “But she has that ‘it’ factor,” says Peck. “It’s about owning your differences and your unique gifts, because that’s what makes you stand out.”

It’s a great message, but ballet has such a narrow field of entry in terms of what bodies need to do and look like, is it a realistic one? Peck insists ballerinas are not as identikit as you might think. “I don’t have the best turnout,” she says, “but I know what works for me, what angles look better from the front. Sometimes I would watch videos of other dancers and think, ‘Why do I even dance?’ Because my legs do not do that at all, I am so tight in the hamstrings. But I have this musicality and speed, which I try to hold on to.”

Amar Ramasar and Tiler Peck in Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes in 2015.
Amar Ramasar and Tiler Peck in Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes in 2015. Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

We talk about whether ballet culture is changing. “There used to be talks if you put on too much weight, or too little weight; you weren’t able to perform,” she says. “Now I don’t know what that conversation would look like.” There are reckonings on transparency, diversity, wellbeing and toxic company cultures going on across the ballet world. New York City Ballet has had to deal with the departure of director Peter Martins amid allegations of sexual harassment, and since 2019 the company has been led by ex-dancers Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan. “The company has changed so much,” says Peck. “It feels like dancers’ voices are being heard, they have much more say. But you’re never going to make every single person happy.”

Peck is back dancing with NYCB for their spring gala, a digital show directed by Sofia Coppola. But she’s also pursuing her dancing happiness elsewhere, in her own choreography, in curating shows such as A New Stage, where she danced a rewrite of Petrushka with jookin dancer Lil Buck, and in working on a dance-jazz fusion with choreographer Alonzo King and singer Gregory Porter. “It’s trying to take charge of your own career a little bit,” she says, beaming down the line, about to grab her bag and rush off to rehearsals. “I feel like now is the time to do the things that are really going to push me.”

The Barre Project is on Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage, 6-16 May. NYCB Spring Gala runs 6-20 May. An Evening of Jazz and Dance is on demand, 1 May-1 August.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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