Talking Dancing: Works & Process at the Guggenheim

A ballet veteran looks back; young dancers gaze into the future


A week after the Frederick Franklin tribute, Works & Process moved from honoring the past to giving the audience a glimpse of the future, although the title of the evening, “Ballet in Sneakers,” hardly heralds a new concept. To the young New York City Ballet dancers who learned Jerome Robbins’s New York Export: Opus Jazz in 2005, when it entered the company’s repertory, the work seemed vital and contemporary. Never mind that it was created in 1958 for Robbins’s new group, Ballets: U.S.A., which made its debut in Spoleto, Italy, the first summer of the Spoleto Festival, and the following year toured Europe as a wildly successful, cold-war ambassador for American culture. Two NYCB dancers, Sean Suozzi and Ellen Bar were less concerned with the ballet’s history than with what it felt to them like now.

Suozzi and Bar were at the Guggenheim to speak about the project that’s fired them up and that they’re working to complete: a film of New York Export: Opus Jazz, with its NYCB cast members wearing up-to-date clothes and with each of its five sections shot in a different New York City location. Amanda Vaill, who wrote the Robbins biography Somewhere, moderated two successive panels. Barbara Milberg-Fisher, who danced in the original cast of Opus Jazz; Edward Verso, who performed with Ballets: U.S.A. in 1961 and staged the work for NYCB; and Jean-Pierre Frohlich, the NYCB ballet master most concerned with the Robbins repertory, talked about the original production and the revival. Suozzi, Bar, their co-producers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (he and Joost are co-directors as well) discussed the filming of Opus Jazz’s duet, “Passage for Two,” this past summer, and how they envision continuing. “Passage for Two” won the Best Camera Re-work Award at the recent Dance Screen Festival in The Hague, but, as you might expect, fund-raising still is an issue.

Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall up on the High Line for “Passage for Two” from  Jerome Robbins’s New York Export: Opus Jazz.
Yaniv Schulman
Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall up on the High Line for “Passage for Two” from Jerome Robbins’s New York Export: Opus Jazz.

Details

Works & Process at the Guggenheim
Guggenheim Museum
“American Ballet Theatre—An Evening with Frederick Franklin”
January 13 and 14
“Ballet in Sneakers”
January 20 and 21

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Ed Sullivan opened the Guggenheim program—that is, his tight-lipped, black-and-white image did—hosting his decades-ago television show and giving his audience a look at Ballets U.S.A. performing the opening section of Opus Jazz. Given the show’s 1959 date and the fact that it must have been broadcast live, the quality of the filming and the choice of angles were amazingly fine (it’s hard to believe that Robbins didn’t have some input). And as Verso said afterward, the performers were wonderfully raw. Despite their proficiency, whether they were primarily jazz dancers or ballet dancers, they looked like the teenagers they were supposed to be—suspicious of the adult world behind the camera lens and full of beans when Robert Prince’s jazzy score got under their skins.

At the end of the Guggenheim event, an NYCB contingent—Gina Pazcoguin, Andrew Veyette, Adam Hendrickson, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Amar Ramasar, and Antonio Carmena—performed the “Statics” section, with its implications of gang rape, and they were fine too, although a little less rough-and-tumble.

But the featured event was the finished film sequence. It was not, as Ellen Bar noted, created haphazardly by two dancers with camcorders. The production team, with a crew of 20 or more, shot it on 35 millimeter stock, with the camera atop a crane—ducking, dollying, and swooping up. The chosen site for “Passage for Two” was an unkempt section of the old elevated freight railroad, the High Line, which is in the process of being transformed into a city park. By way of additional entertainment for the Guggenheim crowd, Schulman read an itemized list of the trash they had to clear from the track in the summer heat before Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall could meet in the narrow space between the two rails, dance searchingly together, and part. I don’t even want to think about the two of them having to run through this poignant, understated duet 25 times a day for two hot days. The very last take is the one the team chose. The sun was sinking behind the brief idyll. Hall walked away from the camera as a silhouette against an orange sky.

You can see what’s up with this project at http://www.opusjazz.com. And check for upcoming Works & Process events in theater, music, and dance at www.guggeheim.org.

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