BalletX interviews Jeanette Delgado, stager for Justin Peck’s ‘Become A Mountain’. She shares about entering the world of film through Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ and her experience with Justin creating the work at Juilliard.
Since leaving Miami City Ballet in 2019, what’s been an exciting part of the dance world that you’ve gotten to experience?
Justin was choreographing the West Side Story film with Steven Spielberg, and it was the summer right after I left Miami City Ballet that we started shooting. Basically, I left the company and went into this amazing world of film.
I had grown up watching West Side Story with my sister. It was the first time I had seen Latina women dancing like that in a movie. So, to be a part of a new iteration, I feel like there will never be anything like that experience. It was so different from everything I’d done before.
How was your experience performing in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story?
This was the first time that I had been in a room with only Latine dancers. My sister was actually an associate choreographer on set, and she just took care of all of us and really helped us feel like our voices were heard. We were all coming from so many different worlds and so many different backgrounds in dance. There was something really powerful to experience thirty people in a room that have all come from similar cultural roots. There was this element of having something that unifies us, and we’re telling the story in a new way that feels so important. It just opened up my eyes and made me feel at home in the most incredible way. I learned so much.
There was also getting to see Steven Spielberg at work and his leadership. For Dance At The Gym, there were sixty dancers because it was thirty Jets and thirty Sharks. So, that was a huge room of people, and he made every single one of us feel like we were important to the story. It was so beautiful to watch him know everyone’s name, interact with everyone, get to know everyone, come to those rehearsals with his iPhone and film things. He was up in it. That to me was just like…that’s a leader. You’re going to get the best out of people when they all feel like they matter and that they’re part of this.
Can you tell us about your staging process with Justin?
With Justin, the experience is very interesting because he uses so much imagery that really helps you understand the visual of what he wants. Then you can bring what that image feels like to you, so every person might do it a little different. But, it’s still what he’s asking for!
I’ve learned that when he gives an image, I will go and write it down. You think you’ll remember, but then you do it until you just have the feel of it…and then you go back and you’re like, “Wait, what was it that he said?” It’s interesting because he can be very detailed about how he sees a movement, but he’s not so specific sometimes. Two dancers might be doing it kind of different and he still feels like they’re both getting it.
I’m just blown away by Graham [Feeny] and what he’s done here as his first time staging. To do such a huge piece of work is incredible. I’m amazed by him and just in awe of what he’s done. When you’re staging, you’re taking care of someone’s creative work. That’s their art, and it’s a beautiful and also challenging responsibility. You want to take care of it and you want to share it in a way that feels inspiring, so that the dancers can almost feel like that person’s in the room.
As a stager, it’s that fine line of sharing the right kind of information and not being so specific that you stifle someone. It’s such a gift to work with professionals and watch these dancers and what they have to offer.
It sounds like there’s an incredible amount of trust…
Yes. Huge, huge. Justin has a group of people that he is really building. There are more and more people that have danced his works, and he’s trusting people with his art. It’s a testament to how generous he is with his work. He trusts and respects the dancers he works with to know that they have the capacity to do that.
Can you speak about Justin’s inspiration behind the work?
He was so inspired by the Juilliard dancers. We both were. It’s hard to put words to it. I was just blown away by their capacity because they do everything there. It felt like a different world from the ballet world we were coming from. When he saw what the dancers were doing with his work, he was like, “Oh cool, this is going in a direction that I didn’t even know it could.” It became something that I think he didn’t even expect it to be.
Coming into Juilliard, they’re very aware of wanting to have support for all gender expressions, and we were learning through that process in a beautiful way. By not using any partnering work and fluidity with the costumes, he was looking to support the dancers and give the space for them to be who they are.
There’s a last moment in the piece when they’re all walking…just walking. I think he wanted to give them a moment to reflect on their time in four years. The pandemic. A lot of them were also seniors and writing grants and it was a stressful time for all of them. They had all gone through so much. He wanted to make it about their community and have it be very collaborative. There’s always so many unknowns in life. An artist can bring whatever moment they’re in, whatever transition they’re going through, or whatever future they’re walking into.
This work was largely informed by the dancers and it always really is. The music also informs so much of how Justin works. He really loves working with Dan Deacon, and what was created feels very much in sync with the journey the music takes you on.
Do you have a favorite moment in Become A Mountain?
When you stage a work, it’s wild how you start to notice these very subtle, simple moments because you learn the work inside and out and you have to know everything.
There’s one moment in the first song where it starts with one dancer coming forward, and then more start running on and off and tumbling forward and tumbling off and meeting each other. It’s a phrase that sort of shifts. Then there’s one dancer that just comes flying through the back repeating the same step. I think that’s my favorite moment.
In the audience, you’re starting to understand what’s being expressed because you’re seeing it over and over. But, your eyes are also ping ponging because people are just falling in and twirling and spinning off. You start to feel exhilarated by what’s happening and also calmed by knowing that they’re continuing to repeat a similar step. It’s this beautiful juxtaposition of being in this with them and vibing, but also being taken in so many different directions. I just love, love, love that section.
Any last thoughts?
I’ve only been here for two days and I feel like the dancers at BalletX are such incredible movers and deep artists. It feels like Justin’s work is such a beautiful fit, and I can’t wait to see how much more they explore and discover. It’ll be their own Become A Mountain.
See BalletX perform the Philadelphia premiere of ‘Become a Mountain’ at Fall Series 2022, Nov 30 – Dec 4 at The Wilma Theater.