Tiler Peck believes that dance is a universal language that brings people together, and there is no better illustration of that than what is taking place at her childhood home during this time of uncertainty. Having left her Upper West Side apartment after Lincoln Center announced its closure amid the coronavirus outbreak, the principal with the New York City Ballet traveled to California to quarantine with her parents.
Because of the West Coast time difference, Peck could not attend the daily classes that her troupe was taking on Zoom, so she decided to hold them for herself in her family’s kitchen. Using the countertop as a barre, she streamed the sessions on Instagram Live, not expecting the overwhelming response and outpouring of appreciation that would follow from virtual students around the world.
“Turn It Out with Tiler” lessons take place from 1-2 pm, Monday through Saturday, on her Instagram handle, @tilerpeck. Thousands of viewers follow along with her plies, arabesques and pirouettes from places as far as South Africa, Australia, Brazil and Iraq, some even waking in the middle of the night to participate.
“To reach thousands of people that I would have never been able to in a physical studio is amazing,” she said. Peck, who made her professional arts debut at age 11 in Broadway’s “Music Man,” also calls on her industry friends such as “Black Swan’s” Benjamin Millepied, Leslie Odom, Sarah Jessica Parker and Broadway director Susan Stroman to lend their expertise and join in as remote guests.
The dancer-turned-author has another project she is proud of, one she hopes will also spark stay-at-home joy. Her new novel, “Katarina Ballerina,” which she co-wrote with actor Kyle Harris, was published on May 5. Written for children in middle grades, it follows a 10-year-old who aspires to become a prima ballerina in New York City, but meets with challenges along the way. The 31-year-old is thankful it went to print at a time when parents are looking for material to keep their kids occupied. “I’m so grateful they are going to have one more book to help them out,” she said.
What feedback have you been getting from students of your live classes?
They say it’s the only thing in their day that they kind of look forward to. It makes me so happy. I feel like if I can give everybody an hour of joy within their day, I’m so grateful to be able to do that. I think it’s really important for us all to stay physical, even though we are in our homes. I hope it’s a time where people can stay physically and mentally strong. It’s kind of an escape for an hour. And also people feel comfortable taking class because they’re not worried about people judging them because nobody can see them. So they will say to me, “I would have never had the confidence to walk into a studio with you, but I feel so comfortable because I know nobody can see me. It’s in the comfort of my home.”
How did you and Kyle get the idea for the novel?
The idea for “Katarina” basically came from when we were doing a show, “Little Dancer,” about Degas’ sculpture, and I played her. My costar, who plays my boyfriend in the show, Kyle Harris, he and I wrote a little rhyme, so to speak, when we were in DC, maybe six years ago. And we thought, “This could be a really cute children’s book.” But when we talked to Simon & Schuster, they said, “We love it, but think it could be a chapter book. How do you guys feel about that?”
Tell us the meaning behind Katarina’s story.
We used Kyle’s and my story a little bit. He used to play soccer and now he’s a big-time actor and in musical theater, and he’s pigeon toed a little bit. And we thought what a great story to make about this little girl who has this love to be a ballerina, but her body isn’t quite right for it. But she has that thing that you can’t teach. You can teach technique as much as you can to a student, but you can’t teach them that light that comes from within, that makes people want to watch you dance. So it’s really about if you work hard and own your own gifts, and don’t compare yourself to the person right next to you. Everyone’s unique and their gifts will shine through. That’s what Katarina’s little story is and what we hope kids learn when they read it.
I read that you’re planning to write about your own life through your injury.
I would like to write something on my injury because it was really a traumatic time in my life. I had a herniated disk in my neck. It was a very serious one. I was kind of told I may never, ever dance again. But I just danced a whole season. I came out of it stronger as a person and a dancer. A different dancer. I’m not the same dancer, and that’s okay. I have a different quality that I bring now, that I didn’t have before. I feel like a lot of people could relate to either not being understood by their doctors, or going through a time of uncertainty where they really had to dig deep. I just want to share my experience so that hopefully it could help other people. I think some people think that ballerinas are untouchable and have perfect lives. That’s just not the case, and I want people to know that we go through things too and if I can help in any way by sharing my experience, that’s something I would really like. I kept a diary and am starting to put together paragraphs and ideas; nothing is set for when that would come out. It’s just in the beginning processes.
What do you plan to do once this quarantine is over?
I will be so excited to get back into a studio and have a lot of space to move. I want to find out how to keep these classes going, because when I go back to New York City Ballet, I’m not going to be able to do them at the same time. So we’ve been brainstorming on what these “Turn It Out with Tiler” classes would look like after COVID, because I would be feeling like I was leaving so many people behind.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
To follow Tiler’s classes, please visit www.instagram.com/tilerpeck