Tiler Peck

Tiler Peck: “I’ve always been a storyteller”

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Short Profile

Name: Tiler Kalyn Peck
DOB: 12 January 1989
Place of birth: Bakersfield, California, United States
Occupation: Ballet dancer

Ms. Peck, as a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, what can you tell me about the moment before the curtain goes up?

Oh, I really love the quiet time in the dressing room even before you’re on stage… When you're putting your stage makeup on, I always listen to music, and I feel like that's when you start to get into the character. And then when you get on stage in your position, and the curtain rises, you feel that breeze where the audience meets the dancing space, and that always feels very otherworldly. Suzanne Farrell, a former principal dancer at the company described it as a ghostly breeze. And it's totally true! It just sweeps over you. I love that feeling.

Is there a shift where you go from being you to being the character?

Well, it depends on what I'm dancing in. If we’re talking about, you know, all the full length shows I really love, like Swan Lake, Coppellia, Romeo & Juliet, The Nutcracker… Those shows and characters are amazing, and they’re so exciting because they take the whole company, everyone on stage together. And then when I get the opportunity to do something like a Broadway show, that's amazing too, because I get to use my voice and I get to act and I get to dance and tell a story. I've always been a storyteller. But a lot of our ballets at the NYCB actually don't have stories, and I just get to be me on stage. So I think for the most part, it's a shift where I lose myself in the performance.

“You're really yourself out there. As a dancer, you have to just be comfortable in your own skin.”

Would you say there’s more pressure involved in those kinds of shows because you don’t have the mask of a character?

You know, sometimes it is more pressure because you're really yourself out there. As a dancer, you can't hide under a swan all the time, you have to just be comfortable in your own skin. And those are some of my favorite ballets, where I just get to go out there and be me in the moment with my partner. Especially because I’ve always just connected with the music! That’s always been a big part of it. The music really moves me and kind of tells me how I feel; when it sounds fast and allegro, that's what makes my body do that. When it's dramatic, I really feel that deeply within myself.

Did it take some time for you to get to the place of feeling comfortable and confident in your skin?

Yes, of course. It’s an everyday kind of thing. I'm a perfectionist, so I'll never be completely happy with everything. But at the same time, I was given this body and I was given this gift of dance, and this is what I have. So I can't really complain about that. I'm very happy that I have the abilities that I have!

Apparently when you were younger, you would often compare yourself to other dancers — you’ve said it took you a long time to appreciate your own skills and the musicality that makes you stand out.

Exactly! I mean, I watched someone like Maria Khoreva or some of the other amazing Russian ballerinas and they just have the perfect facility, you know, they're so flexible, their legs go up so light. That's not where my gifts lie! That's not the kind of dancer I am, I’m tighter which allows me to move quickly, to be dynamic and virtuosic. So yeah, as you're growing up, it's hard to not want to compare yourself to other dancers, but then again, some ballerinas will ask me, “How do you move so fast?” We're all given different gifts!

But surely natural gift is just one part of the equation, right? There’s also a ton of hard work involved.

Well, you’re right, I think the hard work definitely paid off. My grandmother drove me three hours to dance and three hours back from age six to age 11. I would do my school work in the car on the way there and then get home at like 11 o'clock at night, five days a week for many years. My training was seriously intense, and nothing came easy. I worked for everything I've ever been given.

What was the biggest struggle for you? The physicality of your training, or maybe the emotional and mental challenges of this career path?

I think it's a little bit of both, actually. I really took it seriously that I wanted to really become a ballerina. I started out as a jazz dancer, if you’d asked me early on, I probably would’ve said I wanted to go on Broadway. But I became so dedicated to this path. I moved away from home when I was 11 to study ballet, and I've lived in New York since I was 15 years old, which is when I joined the New York City Ballet… It was hard. But I had a really, really supportive family and a really good framework and grounding. And I think that really helped me. Even now, I’m 33 and I just called my mom the other day saying, “When are you coming up for the shows? I really need you here!” (Laughs) My mom and dad, they’ve been my backbone, whenever I’m exhausted or even when I’ve had a serious injury, they were there for me.

The most recent instance took place only a couple years ago in 2019, when you suffered a neck injury that almost took you out of dancing completely…

Yeah, I was told I would never be able to dance again! I was terrified. There was a lot of uncertainty with my injury. It wasn’t even just like, “Would I physically be able to come back to the company,” but also, “Would my injury even let me be able to dance again at all?” That was like a very tough 10 months in my my life… I just had to kind of dig deep and let it ride out. I mean, I've never wanted to dance on pointe into my forties, but I want to leave when I can still do everything. It felt like this injury was taking that choice from me, it was like telling me when it was going to be the end, you know what I mean? I just never ever thought that that would be the way it would have to be.

“It’s almost a relief to perform; let’s go out there and see what happens. That’s the excitement of live art.”

Then the pandemic also happened almost right away once you’d recovered. Was it worrying to then take even more time off stage?

Actually, not so much because I was just so grateful to be back dancing in whatever capacity. And I remember thinking, “Look, it might not be on stage. But at least I'm able to move!” At least I was able to dance, even if it was just in my parents’ kitchen. I really had to make the decision to not use that as a wasted year, because I really couldn’t afford more time off. I started doing some stuff on social media and getting online. That's where my project A New Stage came in, which is a performance series we created during the pandemic and streamed online.

How did it feel for you to be the on the other side of the performance, as curator and organizer?

It was like a dream! I loved it, I’ve always had a keen sense for that. But it was also tough feeling like I'm wearing a million hats — I mean, being a principal dancer in itself and dancing at the highest level is already stressful. There's a lot that goes into this career, but I do enjoy every moment.

I can imagine that all the stress is worth it when you finally get to perform, like you’re crossing a finish line.

It’s not like a finish line, actually. It’s almost a release because you put in the work for rehearsals… One of my mentors Heather Watts always says, “You learn the rules to then go on stage and break them,” you know? You put in the work so that your technique and everything are there, but then you go out there in the moment and you just have to let whatever happens happen. You have to trust that you put the work in, that it's there. So then it’s almost a relief, like, let's go out there and see what happens. That’s the excitement of live art.