On a recent Wednesday morning, Tiler Peck, one of the most brilliant young stars in the world of ballet, strolled through the 3rd St. Promenade in Santa Monica completely unnoticed. The New York City Ballet principal dancer and California native was on hiatus from the company and quite happy to be back on home turf.
Dressed like any other girl out for a day of cruising the beach-side mall in shorts and sandals, Peck blends right in. The only clue to her dance pedigree is her slender frame and graceful carriage. Unlike in NYC, where ballet is a major part of the cultural scene, Southern California is a haven of anonymity for Peck. The exception is when she walks into a class at the Westside School of Ballet, where she studied as a child. She's a guest teacher at the Santa Monica school for a week, and couldn't be more cheerful and welcoming. The 12 to 16-year-old advanced students, however, look at her with silent awe. Most of the girls are too shy to approach her, but they are clearly eager to soak up any wisdom she has to offer. She has made it to where they dream of being.
Peck, 23, first studied dance at her mom's ballet studio in Bakersfield, where her family still lives. At 7 she began commuting to Los Angeles to take private lessons with former Bolshoi ballerina Alla Khaniashvili, and later enrolled at Westside. While taking ballet classes, she also was focused on jazz dancing, acting, and singing. She had small parts in movies and in TV commercials. She also had a refreshingly normal childhood. "I was brought up with dogs, and we had the back yard and pool parties...lots of fun," she said. At 11 she auditioned for, and got, the part of Gracie Shinn, the mayor's daughter in the Broadway revival of "The Music Man." She and her grandmother moved to New York and lived in a tiny apartment for the one-year run of the show. Daytime classes at the School of American Ballet (NYCB's official school) made her realize that ballet was her passion. Subsequent summer courses led to an apprenticeship at NYCB and ultimately, in 2005, to a place in the company's corps. Peck was promoted to soloist in 2006, and became a principal in 2009.
Audiences at Lincoln Center are as likely to see her dance in a traditional story ballet such as "The Sleeping Beauty" as in something like "Two Hearts," a contemporary piece showcasing Peck by recently retired NYCB dancer and choreographer (now Los Angeles resident) Benjamin Millepied. She has performed roles in ballets by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Susan Stroman, Christopher Wheeldon, and company director Peter Martins.
Peck in excerpt from "Two Hearts."
Peck is always on the lookout for a reason to jump on a plane headed for her home state. In 2010 she came back to guest-perform on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." This past April she and fellow NYCB dancer Joaquin De Luz brought the house down at the Laguna Dance Festival. When she is here, if she isn't performing or visiting her family in Bakersfield (where she often teaches at her mom's school), there's a good chance she can be found relaxing in Santa Monica. Her favorite store is Fred Segal, and she loves to hunt for clothes in surf shops. On this visit, she was joined by her boyfriend, Robert Fairchild, also a principal dancer with the company. Peck delighted in showing him her favorite spots. "The first day we played Foosball and air hockey on the pier and then just sat on the beach for two hours," she said. The couple checked out the Santa Monica Farmers Market and scored a table on the patio at Gjelina in Venice. She always tries to get to a favorite outdoor café in Sunset Plaza and has a soft spot for Ventura Boulevard near Universal Studios, where she spent time as a child performer. "I love to come here, have my own car to drive around in and not worry about hailing a cab. I love the sun, the beach, and the weather."
It's hard not to wonder about a possible collaboration in Los Angeles with Millepied, who recently founded the L.A. Dance Project and with whom Peck has a long professional relationship. When asked about this her face lights up. "I think it's amazing Benjamin is trying to start something really unique here and I think he'll do it," she says. "I just hope there will be the audience for it which you always worry about in Los Angeles because there are so many other mainstream things like sports. I do think he's very smart and he knows the way to reach out to all kinds of different crowds and bring in the audience. I feel that we work really well together. If he were to ask me, I would definitely come out to guest in a heartbeat.".
Peck is currently in the middle of a typically busy year. In addition to her work with the New York City Ballet and trips home, she has performed in Germany and China. This summer she will dance in Vail, Jackson Hole, Santa Fe, and Nantucket, and then it's back to New York by August 28 to begin rehearsals for the fall season. Speculating on her future, as dancers inevitably must, Peck says: "After I can't dance anymore I would love to do Broadway, or go back into film and TV. I still study and keep up my acting and singing in case I have to transition.
"I've also thought, maybe at the end of my career, of maybe opening a studio. I've been around teaching for so long and I love it. Even if you don't want to teach that day, somehow if you get into class and you see the faces, the excitement, it's hard not to want to give what you know.".
While her life and career are, for the time being, very much based in New York, Peck admits "it doesn't feel like home to me. I see New York as a place for when you're young to live temporarily, and I see California as a place to settle down and have a house and a back yard....When people ask me where I'm from, I say California. It's where I feel at home."
All photographs by Iris Schneider