If you’re from the New York metropolitan area, you know that almost nothing in the world can duplicate Christmas in Manhattan. Most of us grow up with memories of visiting the tree in Rockefeller Center or seeing a Broadway show during the holidays. For New York City Ballet Principal Dancer, Tiler Peck, it was the experience of seeing “The Nutcracker” for the first time as a kid that ultimately gave her the final push to pursue ballet.
Today, Peck stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” just as she’d proclaimed to her father years ago. Having danced since the age of two, the Bakersfield, CA native landed the role of principal dancer at New York City Ballet by the time she was 20. Though her background is perhaps a bit more diverse than your average ballerina, it’s the culmination of her varied skill set that makes her truly unique in the dance world.
It’s not just her dancing ability that makes her diverse, though. Since making principal dancer in 2009, she’s explored all manners of creativity—including acting, publishing and even designing her own dancewear collection. After being shot for the cover of “The Style of Movement: Fashion and Dance” by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory (NYC Dance Project) earlier this year, I caught up with Peck to talk performance, inspiration and of course, Christmas.
You’ve practiced dance from an early age, debuting on Broadway by age 11. Who would you say was your greatest inspiration during your early years?
My mom. She was my first dance teacher; I grew up dancing in her studios. I think that played a really big role in my life because she started me on my way. At six years old, I was dancing four days a week. My training had everything from hip-hop to jazz—I did it all. She was the one who saw my talent at a really young age and challenged me. She didn’t think Bakersfield, CA had quite enough for me to fulfill my potential. I don’t think most ballerinas come from that background, but I wouldn’t change that for anything. Had she not seen and pushed me, I wouldn’t be here [in New York City] today.
You joined NYC Ballet in 2005 and quickly rose to principal dancer by 2009. What has that experience been like for you?
To be honest, when I was younger, ballet was my least favorite—which of course is what my mother taught. It takes the most discipline and when you’re younger, it seems more fun to dance to a pop song. Ballet is classical and takes a lot of concentration. So as a kid, I never thought I would be in a ballet company. It wasn’t until I did “The Music Man” on Broadway when I was 11, which brought me to New York where I started studying at the School of American Ballet (the school that feeds into New York City Ballet). There was something about that school—the technique, the style—it really appealed to me. Balanchine was more jazzy, and we even got to dance a ballet to Gershwin. So I do feel like NYC Ballet is a perfect fit for me because I get to do all different styles in a ballet company. I was determined to not look like a jazz dancer performing ballet—but to become a ballerina. At 15, I was accepted into the company so my career was chosen for me in a way. I’m so glad that it happened that way because I love the company; I love being a ballerina. I love everything about it. It came so quickly. Today, you can’t even get into the company until you’re 18—at 18 I was almost a principal. Because of my background coming from the jazz world, performing always felt very natural to me.
In recent years with NYC Ballet, you’ve starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy (among other roles) in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” What separates this performance from the others?
My parents took me when I was 11 to see “The Nutcracker.” I told my father that I wanted to be on that stage some day. “The Nutcracker” is what made me want to be in the NYC Ballet in particular. For me to be in this role is very rewarding as it hopefully inspires the next generation of ballerinas who get to see it for the first time with me in it. Some people dislike “The Nutcracker” because it’s every year. I look forward to it and I love sprinkling some Christmas magic. I don’t think New York City is the same without it. It’s such a family show. To be on stage with the entire company and have kids from the school dancing with you, it’s a really special feeling that you don’t get in other ballets.
Holiday shows in New York City have a certain ephemeral magic to them. Do you feel there is more pressure for shows like this?
Not at all. If anything, I feel I’m more relaxed during “The Nutcracker” because we get to do it every year. It feels very warm. The audiences are coming to celebrate the holidays with their families, so I always feel everyone in the audience is there for a good reason, and not as judgemental as a typical audience.
What is your favorite part about New York City during the holidays? Your favorite memory?
Growing up, I never had snow. For me, the best part about performing “The Nutcracker” is having my family fly here and getting to share that with them. We get to enjoy a snowy Christmas that we never had. I do miss having a fireplace, but just being together—my family is super close. New York City for Christmas is just really special.
You’ve been photographed by NYC Dance Project and were featured on the cover of their latest work “The Style of Movement: Fashion and Dance.” Knowing how beautifully they capture movement, what was it like working with them?
It was an honor to be on the cover in vintage Valentino, which almost no one gets to wear. Valentino is a friend of mine, and he actually let me do that. It was the first time I was able to wear dresses that were designed by him, as they are now designed by the house, so it meant something extra to me. I think fashion and dance have such a beautiful collaboration, you know? I think that dance somehow makes the dresses look their most beautiful. Sometimes they’re not seen that way—especially if they’re on a runway. So I think fashion designers love when dancers put on their dresses, because you can really see the movement and quality. Deborah [Ory] and Ken [Browar] are so amazing to work with. I’ve shot with them a few times and I always look forward to it.
You have a children’s book coming out in 2020 which follows Katarina, a 10-year-old girl with aspirations to be a ballerina in New York City. How will this story mirror your own in any way?
[Katarina] is not supposed to be me at all. The only similarity is that she has a little dog that we based off of my own. I wrote it with a friend of mine, Kyle Harris, who was my co-star in a musical titled “Marie, Dancing Still.” We put together this idea of this little girl who wants so badly to fit in with the other girls. It’s about owning what makes you unique. I think growing up in the dance world, you can easily get caught up comparing yourself to other ballerinas. I know for me, what makes me different is what the company likes about me. So I think for every kid, whether they dance or not, what we’re trying to do is show that dance is this universal language that everyone can understand. You don’t have to be perfect. You have to be able to own your uniqueness and use it to make you the best version of yourself.
You’re also dabbling in acting, appearing on “Ray Donovan” season 7. What can you tell me about the role and your time filming?
The team couldn’t have been better; they were so welcoming to me. Liev [Schreiber], his daughter is actually a ballerina, so one of the first things he said to me was, “My daughter thinks I’m pretty cool right now.” They were all wonderful. I play a ballerina in the episode, so it wasn’t a far stretch for me! I ended up being in three episodes; it was originally just supposed to be one and it kept evolving. It was amazing to be offered the opportunity and I had such a great time working on it.
What inspired you to start Tiler Peck Designs?
It’s a leotard line for Body Wrappers, which is a dancewear brand. After being photographed in Body Wrappers (for which I was the spokesperson) I started thinking to myself, ‘I could apply my own taste in fashion and my sensibility to create a new kind of leotard.’ The team at Body Wrappers totally embraced my creativity and supported me in making it a reality! We even started making pieces that can go from studio to streetwear. I knew I liked the designs, but I never knew other people would as well. It’s nice to know people like wearing them. I was working on another TV show and had brought some of my designs to set and the wardrobe team actually picked two of them for me to wear instead of what they had pulled for the character. When I teach, I see all the little girls wearing my leotards, it makes me happy to see them happy in my design.
Featuring photography from “The Style of Movement: Fashion and Dance” by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory