N.Y.C. Ballerina Tiler Peck Reflects on 'Tough' 2020 as COVID Halts Dance Industry

For ballerina Tiler Peck, The Nutcracker will always hold a special place in her heart since it’s what first made her realize that her dream was to one day be in the New York City Ballet.

“When I was 11, I saw the production,” Peck tells PEOPLE. “My dad took us there for the holidays and I had never thought about being a ballerina. But once I saw it, I said, ‘Daddy, I want to dance on that stage someday.’ ”

Flash forward two decades and Peck, 31, has been with the New York City Ballet for 16 years, performing in that very same production year in and year out — until, of course, 2020, when the novel coronavirus pandemic uprooted life as she knew it.

The ballet’s annual five-week run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker was canceled in June, marking the first time in nearly 70 years it won’t hit the stage, according to The New York Times. Months later, in August, the famed Rockettes canceled their annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

The cancellation of such holiday staples has been a difficult adjustment for many in the city’s dance community, including Peck, a principal at the New York City Ballet who says performing anywhere but a stage with a live audience is near impossible — and certainly missing a spark.

“It’s been tough. We’re all in this boat and we’re all just waiting for our industry to come back,” she says. “I think we’re going to feel so fortunate to be able to be in the space and in the theater together. And when we finally are all together, it’s going to be kind of emotional and amazing all at the same time.”

Like many in the industry, Peck has had to turn to alternative sources for income, including some teaching and private lessons over Zoom.

“This time has made the community even closer because we’re going through it together: Rockettes, or even Broadway actors,” she says. “I’ve found a lot of comfort in getting close with them. It’s just been amazing to see the kind of support and love that we all have for each other.”

The year has been particularly rough for the California native, who had only just made a triumphant return from a potentially career-ending injury when the pandemic hit.

Peck says multiple doctors told her she would never dance again following a “very severe” neck injury in the spring of 2019, something she reflects on as a “very traumatic time” in her life.

She kept her focus clear, though, and with extensive physical therapy and some blood, sweat and tears, made her way back to the stage nine months later, just in time to perform in last season’s production of the Nutcracker.

“Even through an injury I didn’t miss The Nutcracker. So this year, the pandemic, is the first year I’ve ever missed The Nutcracker in my entire time being with the New York City Ballet,” says Peck, who plays either the Sugarplum Fairy or Dewdrop. “An athlete’s career is so short and I’m never going to get these years back, so it just kind of feels like the rug is being taken from under me.”

Peck was unable to move for six months during her recovery and wasn’t about to let the pandemic erase her progress — so in March, she launched Turn It Out with Tiler, a free, twice-weekly Instagram Live series that encourages people at home to get on their dancing shoes alongside her.

The series — which started out with classes Monday through Saturday — exploded in popularity, and has even featured stars like Jennifer Garner, Sarah Jessica Parker, Josh Groban, Leslie Odom Jr. and the Rockettes.

“I know from the responses that I’ve been getting that it really gets people through their day and it’s something they look forward to because they could be in the comfort of their home,” Peck says.

Despite the bad days, in which she says she grows frustrated, she keeps looking on the bright side: She’s still able to dance, unlike when she was injured, and she can still share her art with the world – even if it is on a smaller scale.

“Every time I dance, I hope there’s another kid like me, like my 11-year-old self, sitting in the audience that is hopefully discovering their future as a ballerina just like I did,” she says.

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