In the Countenance of Kings, Justin Peck’s exuberant work for 18 dancers, was made for San Francisco Ballet in 2016. The dance features music by Peck’s frequent collaborator, Oscar-nominated indie rocker Sufjan Stevens (composer for Peck’s Year of the Rabbit), who has referred to his score, The BQE, as “a cinematic suite inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Hula-Hoop.” The ballet’s name is taken from one of the movements of The BQE. Dance writer Carla Escoda explains, “The title can perhaps be understood not as a reference to aristocracy but as a play on (the now ultra-hip) Kings County—as the English renamed the towns it wrested from the Dutch settlers of ‘Breuckelen’ in the seventeenth century.” Peck has even given his dancers character names à la Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrims Progress: The Protagonist, Botanica, Quantus, and Electress, for example.
Collaboration with youthful contemporaries is important to Peck: “My intention is to make sure that the new work being created for the ballet world is relevant. I think it’s really important to keep working with artists of this generation, whether they be visual artists, or designers, or composers.” These words echo the sentiments of Jerome Robbins, who once said in an interview, “Why can’t we dance about American subjects? Why can’t we talk about the way we dance today and how we are now?”
Reviewing the first performance of Kings, Janice Berman wrote, “While Peck’s is an original voice, as is Stevens’, it was impossible not to be reminded of collaborations between Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein such as On the Town and West Side Story; the new piece has that urban thrust, coupled with a persistently glorious rhythmic intensity. And likeability.”
In the Countenance of Kings is the third work by Justin Peck to be added to PNB’s repertory.
Notes by Doug Fullington.