Back in 2021, Tiler Peck, principal dancer at New York City Ballet, reached out to Alonzo King, asking if he’d be interested in working on a collaboration. That initial conversation led to the creation of Swift Arrow, a pas de deux performed by Tiler and New York City Ballet soloist Roman Mejia, with original music by the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director of Jazz Jason Moran. The new ballet choreographed by Alonzo premiered at the Kennedy Center and made an encore showing at Vail Dance Festival later that year.
Today, Tiler and Roman take the piece to the stage again in the New York City Center’s “Artists at the Center” series running through March 6th, 2022. To celebrate, we sat down with Tiler Peck to discuss her experience working with Alonzo. We cover everything from letting go in partnering, to exploring the human quality in performance, to having the boldness to go after what she wanted. Below are excerpts from that conversation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What sparked your idea to reach out to Alonzo for a collaboration?
You know, I think at this point in my career, I really want to work with somebody who will challenge me and push me to the next level. Bill Forsythe actually suggested that I work with Alonzo; there’s so much respect between the two of them. So I reached out and Alonzo wrote back, “Let’s do it!” I feel like he’s such an important voice and figure in the dance world. I just love his movement style and love watching the dancers in LINES Ballet. So for me, it was a dream come true that he wanted to work with me too and that this little project could become an actual ballet!
How did Roman Mejia and Jason Moran join the project? Were they in your initial idea for the collaboration?
Alonzo brought Jason Moran into the project because they have such a wonderful relationship, and he had worked with Roman before on The Personal Element, a ballet that he choreographed for the Vail Dance Festival a few years prior. Alonzo actually asked me early on, “Who are you thinking about for your partner? What about Roman Mejia?” And I said, “That’s so funny. I was going to suggest him too!”
Roman is your go-to partner for a lot of projects. How did you two meet, and how has your partnership developed?
I took a men’s class with Roman while he was still in the School of American Ballet, and I remember thinking, “Wow, that kid is really good!” Then, quickly thereafter, Roman joined the New York City Ballet as an apprentice. And, you know, it’s funny, we didn’t really speak much at the time. But in preparation for the Vail Dance Festival, Damian Woetzel asked me, “Hey, are there any new core dancers that I should bring to the festival?” And I said, “Well, there’s an apprentice. He’s not in the core yet, but he’s really good” (that was Roman). Then Damian said, “Okay, we’re gonna bring him. And actually you’re going to do Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux together.” Which was hysterical! That was the first thing we ever danced together.
Dancing with Roman feels very much like a conversation. He is such a natural partner; we can try things for the first time and he just knows what to do. And he’s so kind; I love being in the room with him, especially when working on a new process. He’s somebody that challenges me and has so much energy. There’s a ton of talent there; it’s good motivation for me to keep my game up. Also our timing is really good together, very natural. That’s not something you can really teach.
What did Roman and you do with Alonzo on the first day of rehearsal?
Alonzo threw out so much material on that first day. I remember turning to Roman and saying, “I don’t know if it’s because we haven’t been in a room with a choreographer in such a long time, but I feel like I can’t pick up anything.” And normally I pick choreography up pretty quickly. I told Alonzo, “you have to let me record this. So we can make sure to remember it for tomorrow.” And when we went back to rehearsal the next day, we felt so sore. I asked Roman, “Can you walk?” and he said, “No, my back’s really sore.”
It’s very different movement than we’re used to. It’s not up and down. The balancing, the speed, the quickness, it’s all really extreme, which is amazing! I remember being asked, “How long can you make yourself look?” and I joked with Alonzo, I said, “Oh my gosh, we are probably the smallest dancers you’ve ever worked with.”
In Alonzo’s partnering, each person gets to take turns being supported and offering support. Did working with Alonzo spark anything new in your partnership with Roman?
Yes, it’s funny. Alonzo kept saying, “Tiler, let him do it.” You know, I get used to doing things on my own sometimes because I know I can, and if something goes wrong, then I can blame myself. But the nature of Alonzo’s work is, “Okay, I’m driving. Now Roman’s driving for me.” And you have to be kind of submissive. I had to be okay with the fact that Roman was leading at certain points. That was a little difficult for me, but I got better at it.
I remember Alonzo asking me, “Do you trust Roman?” and I knew, “Oh, yeah, I trust him.” Roman and I never argue; we’re always on the same page, trying to get to the same goal. And if there’s something that he thinks I could do differently, he’s not afraid to speak up, and I want my partners to be like that. But it’s always in the most gentle and kind way.
Is there a moment that you remember just losing it laughing in rehearsal?
I definitely had some moments where I turned to Roman and said, “I literally have no idea what Alonzo just did.” Thank God we had Maddie DeVries (LINES Ballet company artist) in the room. I really was paying attention, and as Alonzo was doing the choreography, I would think, “Okay, I’m getting this, I’m getting this.” And then he’d say, “Okay, now show me.” And I could remember only maybe four steps out of a forty-five second phrase. In those moments, we would always turn to Maddie and she would know it. That was a joke between us; Good thing Maddie’s here; she’s got our backs.
Alonzo is always trying to excavate the fullest potential out of people. How did he do this with you and Roman throughout the rehearsal process?
It is a conversation the whole time you are working with Alonzo. He asks, “Tiler, what are you thinking right here? What’s your motive? What are you doing?” And same for Roman. He would nail a turn, and Alonzo would ask, “Can you add another one? And can you face the other way while you turn?” And Roman would just do it. Isn’t that incredible?! When a choreographer can ask you for something that you think can’t be done, but it can be done. You just needed to be asked; you just needed to be pushed.
Did Alonzo share any ideas that made you rethink dance, creativity or your artistry?
I remember Alonzo talking about bringing the human quality out in the dance. And that was something that I hadn’t really heard from a choreographer before. I remember him saying something along the lines of, “I don’t want to see the choreography. I want it to be in you.”
He’s so poetic in the way he speaks and describes steps to you. He would say, “This is a rain. This is a waterfall.” I love all the images he uses.
Swift Arrow premiered at the Kennedy Center in July of 2021. That was your first time performing for a live audience since the start of the Pandemic. How was that experience?
It was nice, because I felt nervous. And I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I haven’t felt this feeling in so long.” I was excited to finally be performing something that I couldn’t redo if it went poorly. There’s that little rush that you get before a performance, a live performance. And that was something I definitely missed, that connection between the audience and the dancer.
How does the piece change each time you perform it?
I think we get to know the piece better each time. Roman and I are definitely more connected and more in unison. I feel like it has become one of those dances that makes you wonder if you should be watching it or not, where the two people on stage are so connected that you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon something that’s not really intended for the audience.
In one of our later Zoom rehearsals with Alonzo, he said, “Okay, now you guys have it. We’ve done it five times. Now I want more.” And I really love that about Alonzo; with him, the work is never done. There’s always more, and I like to work with people that ask for more.
You also had the opportunity to hang out with the LINES Ballet dancers while you were at the Music Center. How was it getting to know them?
Getting to meet the whole company was amazing! They were so welcoming to Roman and I and made us feel so at home. They were in a little huddle backstage, doing their pre-show ritual, and they let us join in. We took a picture together afterwards, and we were joking that you could barely even see Roman and I because we were so small compared to them. They’re all so amazingly tall. It’s nice to be sharing the stage with such talented dancers that are so different from you. And we were in awe to see Alonzo’s choreography done by the people that are working with him every single day.
You have said that dance and art heal. Can you speak more to that? Is that something that you have experienced in your own life?
I feel like movement and dance are languages that we all speak. That’s what Alonzo said, ‘Everybody is a dancer.’ And it’s so true! The way people communicate with each other is a dance, even the way we cook something is. I think the mind, body, and heart are so connected, and dance is the connective tissue between them.
During the pandemic, everybody needed to get up and do something, to keep their minds and bodies healthy. And I really feel like moving does that. On the days where I didn’t dance, I found myself so much more down. And on the days that I did, I found myself thinking, “Okay, we can get through this. This is going to be a tough time, but it’s going to pass.”
You didn’t wait for Alonzo to come to you. You initiated and made the first ask. That’s very inspiring for artists at any age. For someone who has a project or a dream that they want to make a reality, how would you encourage them to take the first step?
Yeah, you know, it’s funny, you learn as you get older, what’s the worst that could happen? I could call Alonzo and he could say no. He could say, “I’m too busy” or this or that, but why would I want to stay wondering? I feel like there’s more sadness in that, in not knowing. I just don’t want to have any regrets. And after the pandemic, I believe in that more than ever. Why wait? If we’ve all learned anything over this time, it’s that life is precious and limited. And so you might as well put it out into the universe, what you want to do, and hopefully make it happen.
What was your greatest takeaway from this experience working with Alonzo?
That something so beautiful came out of a time that was really dark. And during a pandemic, where there were so many unknowns. I think if anything, it just goes to show that we need to create new art, to keep us going, to keep life moving forward, to keep ourselves energized and inspired. I think about how amazing it will be to look back on this time. And to say, not only did we create a work that I’m proud of, but we made it during the pandemic, a time we’ll never forget.
Interview by Erin McKay
Video Edited by Philip Perkins
For tickets to see “Artists at the Center | Tiler Peck”, visit: bit.ly/tilerpecknycb.
To learn more about Alonzo King, visit: linesballet.org/about/alonzo-king.
To celebrate LINES Ballet’s 40th Anniversary, visit: linesballet.org/40th-anniversary.