The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.

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Episode Transcript

Kristy Geslain: Hi! I'm Kristy Geslain and welcome to episode 6 of This Is Lincoln Center, a podcast featuring the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's stages.

In the summer of 2006, Peter Walker arrived at the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center, a young kid from Florida enrolled in the school's intensive summer course. Not knowing all that much about the school or the storied ballet company for which it serves as a training ground, the fledgling dancer could never have imagined what the following years would have in store. In 2007, Peter enrolled as a full-time student at the school, and in the spring of 2011 he became an apprentice with New York City Ballet. One year later he joined the legendary company as a member of the corps.

And now, at 25 years old, Peter has just completed his second choreographic commission for the company. Dance Odyssey is about to take the stage at the Koch Theater, premiering as part of New York City Ballet's annual NEW COMBINATIONS program. I sat with Peter in the final days of rehearsal for the piece to discuss the challenges and joys of dancing and choreographing for America's leading ballet company.

This is Lincoln Center with Peter Walker.

KG: So let's begin with your very early training. You're eight years old living in Fort Myers, Florida. 

Peter Walker: Correct.

KG: And you're studying tap.

PW: I am. The story goes, I don't remember this. . . I came home one day and just told my mom I wanted to tap dance. So, we went to, like, our county rec center, they had a woman there teaching tap and jazz and, you know, other things.

So I worked with her and I really loved it. After about a year she suggested that I take ballet and I was like, "No, absolutely not. Why would I do that?" And her rationale being that, you know, if your goal is, you know, Broadway and you're in an audition and there's a ballet section of the audition, you know, you want to at least know the vocabulary. She said, just go take it for a year, you know, learn the basics just so you're not totally like fish out of water if that comes up.

So, in our town there happened to be a school called Gulfshore Ballet, and the artistic director of that school was Melinda Roy, who was a former Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet, unbeknownst to me. I have no idea what New York City Ballet is, I have no idea what a plie is, nothing. At this point, I'm nine years old. I start with the school, I go and watch a class. I start with the school, full scholarship. Long story short, one year turned into five.

And then my teacher goes, "You should audition for SAB, for the summer course." I go, "What's that, like summer camp?"

Most of these kids grow up going, "New York City Ballet! I have to go there!" And, you know, I'd ever seen a ballet video. I can't express how out of the loop I was with this community.

I did, I auditioned and I got a very polite rejection letter (laughs) my first time. I mean, I was 12 at the time and, but you know, encouraging "come back next year." So I came back next year, 13, I auditioned and I got in. I guess they saw potential.

So I go for that summer at 13 and they asked me to stay for the winter. I went back, finished middle school, and then at 14, came back for my second summer. They asked me to stay and I, and I did. I moved here when I was 14 to go to high school and be in the school. I was in the school for 4 years and at 18 I got my apprenticeship with New York City Ballet, and here we are.

KG: What was it like when you got into the company and had to make the shift from student to professional?

PW: So, it's like with going from high school to college. You know, you are in the school, you're in the top of the pile. And then you get your apprenticeship, now you're in the big leagues, you're back at the bottom, square one. No one knows you. You know, there's only like two or three people who really move between the school and the company. The teachers at the school don't teach the company. The teachers at the school teach the students. Then once you become a part of the company you have new teachers, you have new balletmasters, the people who rehearse you, so it's a whole new world. The dancing's completely different. The schedule's completely different. You're suddenly consuming so much choreography and rep and having to put it out at such a rapid rate that you don't do at the school.

The way that the company works during our main seasons, the amount of rep that we put on the stage is exponentially more than any other company in the country, and the corps de ballet is really the body of that work.

Depending on the programming, they have three ballets a night. You're, you know, 18 years old, you're on every night. You work from 10:30 till 5:30, and then you have a break and you work from 7:30 to 10:30, the show.

The biggest shift, I think, is the rehearsal and the learning process and being able to reproduce work at a very rapid rate.

KG: And how did all of this consuming of choreography make you want to become a choreographer?

PW: There's a student choreographic workshop at the school for the advanced levels every year, and that's a really great program where you get to, like, sign up and you choreograph on your friends and there's like a studio showing.

My first experience with that was actually dancing for it. It was the first time that something was made on me. And so there's this really interesting dynamic about being created on that most of our dancers in the company really thrive on, because that's kind of what our company is built on, is new work. And so that was my first taste of that. And then my last year in the school, I just decided to choreopgraph for this student choreographic. That was my first experience with choreography. It was. . . fine. You know, I guess they saw potential in that, so when I became an apprentice I was at the school for the summer course and I was asked to choreograph for the Summer Choreographic Institute. I was shocked that they asked and I was like, "Okay, yeah, absolutely, like, why not? It'll be fun." I got to use a lot of people. It was my first experience with working with a group. My best friend's dad composed the music. It was a great experience.

The following year, I was injured over the summer and I just wanted something to do, so I asked to do the summer institute again, and that was, I think, probably the turning point for me choreographically, because all I was doing was working on this piece. I wasn't dancing and I couldn't do anything physically, you know, really virtuosic so it was all in my head and that was like a very cerebral experience, probably the turning point for me.

After that they asked me to do Winter Ball, which is the school's fundraiser. That's kind of a big deal, right? It's like a gala dinner. It's the only piece and we perform it on the promenade of the theater, and it's the intermediate and advanced levels of the school. After this winter ball I go, "You know, you know, I just want. . . I want to take a break from choreography. I need to focus on my dancing." Not even a year later, half a year later, "So, do you want to make a ballet for the company?" And I was like, "What?!" I was. . . I was quite, quite shocked. That conversation literally happened onstage right before curtain. So now it was like, out of the frying pan into the fire and that was it, you know?

KG: Tell me a little about that first commission.

PW: My first commissioned piece for the company was titled Ten in Seven and it was seven movements. Each movement had a different kind of style. It was just something that I was trying to bring, like, just a completely different approach to the stage. And the movement, too, I mean, it was fairly contemporary. The girls didn't wear pointe shoes. It was just very. . . my own voice. The people who really liked it, it was like they really connected with it.

KG: So now you're back with a new work, Dance Odyssey.

PW: Yes.

KG: Tell me all about it.

PW: Well, same story. After my first piece. . . 

KG: There's a theme here.

PW: Yes, it was pretty well received. We had the debriefing, you know, after the season, after its first run. It was, you know, "I liked what you did, I'm glad, you know, you really stuck to your guns. There was a good arc. These were the good things. So how about another?" And I go, "What? Are you kidding?" Completely shocked, honestly, truly, completely taken aback and completely unprepared. You know, a lot of choreographers have a catalogue of music ready to go, to pick from. So here we go again, and I go "Oh, my God, okay," so I immediately start looking for music.

KG: So, your first inclination is to find the music. How do you go about finding it?

PW: So the idea behind finding the music was using an orchestra. We have a fantastic orchestra. And what I did before that was I brought in outside musicians and it was a different instrument altogether. So the idea this time was to use our house and you know, pay homage to this tradition, a neoclassical ballet, to orchestral music, pointe shoes, the whole nine yards. Not quite tutu, white tights, but this new form of, like, neoclassical, you know, along the lines of Ratmansky, Justin Peck, Chris Wheeldon.

Personally, I have a really hard time with classical music because as a choreographer I'm a very visual creative. Classical music, all I see is, like, ballets that I've already seen. We work so much with so much different styles and so much different rep and I'm constantly consuming this choreography, like, from 10:00 to 7:00 every day learning new work that then when I hear this classical music all I can do is draw from these steps that have already been done: "Oh, that reminds me of this, this reminds me of this," and that's, like, the most restrictive feeling as a creator, like, constantly, like, sidestepping yourself to try to not, like, quote too many people.

This is the first time that I've set out to make something fairly classical, and I've just worked, I mean, for seven years straight of, like, this exact stuff and it's in my body. A lot of choreographers go into a studio to, like, move around and, like, just listen to the music. That's not how I work. I can't improv dance. I don't social dance. It's very visual for me so I see, like, "That's a cool shape, and this is a cool shape. How do we get from point A to point B?" And it's like a puzzle, a slow, building-block process of, like, figuring out the physicality of what I'm hearing. And so classical music for me would not build in this way.

Besides that, at this point, I had been working exclusively for camera with popular music. Electro or dance music or whatever, not classical at all.

KG: So how did you find this piece of music ultimately? What led you to it?

PW: That magical place called the Internet. You know, I would find different pieces from composers and then I was able to track down a couple, like, recordings that hadn't been released from, like, the New York Phil, of, like, a piece that premiered last year, like, but really obscure and it was really hard, like a lot of legwork for, like, not a lot of results.

I did come across a few composers that I was attracted to their work that hopefully I could work with in the future, it just wasn't right for this instance, right?

I was originally looking for like, weird. . . I mean, I was listening to, like, bassoon symphonies and, like, brass quartets, like really weird stuff because I was thinking, you know, I need the sonic quality of this music to be not strings; it's going to make me make something that I've seen before, I'm just not going to be able to do it.

So, ultimately, I found this composer Oliver Davis. He's a British composer and this album that I'm using from is a string orchestra and a solo violin, solo piano. That's like as classical as you can get, right? It's so rhythmically interesting, it's so melodically deep. Like, the tracks are two to five minutes, so they're songs essentially, and different movements of different pieces, but the album itself is called Dance. And so I saw that and I was like, "Okay, so let's investigate." It's really, like, fast and complex and there's many layers to work with and I was like, "This is what I need to do."

KG: Tell me about the costumes. What is it going to look like?

PW: Yeah, costumes are always an interesting thing to consider for me because I'm used to working at such informal events like studio showings or for camera it's kind of street clothes, whatever that is. So finding the right pairing, you know, with a costume that doesn't detract from the dancing. You know, it's not a runway, it's not a fashion show.

I'm fortunate to be working with our Costume Director in house, Marc Happel. We talked a lot about, like, concept art, and a lot of concept art has been dealing with, you know, sort of like, long exposure and color dragging or, like, you know when a shadow, you have two light sources that cross and the shadow splits and so there's like this delay effect that we've been trying to kind of like figure out what that means like on a body.

The scheme is kind of like purples and blues and I just wanted it to be like bright and clean and like, simple, where, you know, the girls might have skirts and the guys might have like a top, too, but it's really about that kind of like design.

So we do digital printing on this leotard material that gives you these like, lines that kind of mimic, like, the curves of the body, and that’s kind of the whole approach for the visuals of the ballet, is these like long exposure...I've been taking a lot of studio photography of like long exposure movement and that's kind of the whole theme of the piece is this like...drag effect.

KG: Tell me a little bit about the relationship between you and the dancers in the room when you go to create this piece.

PW: Yeah, I'm very close with most of them, and I'm fairly close with all of them. You know, that is one advantage of working... dancing in the company. You know, a lot of times, choreographers come in from the outside and you watch maybe a week of classes and then you pick your dancers. I know my dancers so well. I've been watching them dance for seven years, most of them. I just know their personality, I know their strength. There's no learning curve, there's no, like, feeling it out… I mean, that's how it was working with students that I didn't know for the first time. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who each person was as a person, not as a dancer. So that's one thing that's just like you know incredibly fortunate working in-house that not many choreographers get that luxury.

KG: I'd imagine that's a lot to handle, wearing the choreographer hat and being a dancer with a really grueling schedule.

PW: I mean, it's fun. Sometimes it's a little bit weird that rehearsal ends, five minutes later you're standing in the front of the studio. There is like a bit of a changing of hats there, but for me it's creatively difficult when I was making the steps. Now we're in, you know, we're cleaning it and it's finished. I'm just rehearsing them.

When it was my job to make the steps, I would finish rehearsal and I would walk next door to the studio or sometimes the same studio and that quick turnaround and like shifting my brain into creative mode sometimes would not happen. I mean, I had rehearsals where I got hardly anything done because you're just so blocked up, or I'm like thinking about what I was just dancing and still correcting myself.

So I like, had to like, make a concerted effort to separate the two to take five, ten minutes to myself and like get my thoughts together.

I mean, I had days where I was like, dance for an hour, choreograph for an hour, dance for an hour, choreograph for a half hour, go back to dancing. It's a little bit wild mentally, but if you stay on top of it, it's like, it's, I mean, it's unlike anything.

KG: And what is this piece of art saying?

PW: It's dangerous when you start talking about themes and "What am I trying to say?" because then you start to build a narrative. And this is not a narrative ballet. It is totally abstract. For me, it goes back to, like, the basics of great music, great dancers, and finding that, like, physical pairing to, like, bring this music to life in a way that does not detract. Because, you know, it's like sometimes you watch a ballet and it's, like, really great and the music's really great, but I'd rather just, like, listen to the music, you know? Or where I'd rather just watch the dance, where it just doesn’t really connect or it kind of detracts from one another. So trying to find, like... a big stress of mine is this music is just so good and I listened to it for so long, I was like, crap, like, the music's going to be the best thing about it, you know what I mean? And I'm going to like, you know, dirty the waters with this choreography. So it's really just trying to like.. show the music in the best light and make it, like, fun and interesting to watch.

There is some, you know, like, themes that we're dealing with that I even hesitate to put out there because I don't want people to go in thinking about that. It's all up to you and it's kind of just very straightforward in that way.

KG: What about the audience? Are they on your mind when you're creating these pieces?

PW: When I'm in an audience, like, I want to be considered, right? I paid money to sit there and I pay... like, it's not, like, a self-indulgent, emotional like, "I just want to, like, feel good and move through it," it's like, I'm thinking about what the audience is seeing, right? Musical, you know, physically intelligent, exciting to watch, interesting to watch, a reason to see it again, you know? Can't be so, you know, straightforward that you're like, "Okay, I get it and I'm out of here," and you know, that's it. It has a lot do with putting on a good show.

KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell and Rob Schulte.

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