New York City Ballet Dancers Take to the Streets—on Film

Put some professional dancers in a field or in an alley and film them in action. Depending on the choreography, there’s often a disturbing disconnect between the artifice of what they’re doing and the naturalness of the setting. An arabesque reads like a foreign language. I first saw the onscreen version of the duet from Jerome Robbins’s 1958 ballet NY Export: Opus Jazz in 2008 on one of the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process evenings. Its instigators and co-producers, New York City Ballet dancers Sean Suozzi and Ellen Bar, were still raising money to complete the film of a work they loved performing when it was revived for NYCB in 2005.

What the two dedicated young entrepreneurs had created so far, along with co-directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes, was undeniably lovely, but when I watched NYCB dancer Craig Hall balance Rachel Rutherford high in the air and slowly turn her, I didn’t think that this was exactly what two disaffected teenagers would do at sunset up in the weedy wilderness that was the High Line before its facelift.

Now that the film is complete and has had a number of showings, as well as being featured on PBS’s Great Performances, I see that duet and the whole endeavor from a different perspective. As choreographer Eliot Feld says in the mini-documentary by Matt Wolf and Anna Farrell that follows the movie, the 1958 ballet was Robbins’s abstraction of his West Side Story (Feld should know; he was the WSSmovie’s Baby John). No gang wars, no story to speak of—just a bunch of alienated kids with enough pent-up energy to crack concrete. In taking the ballet and the NYCB dancers who’d been performing it onstage at Lincoln Center into abandoned or derelict city spaces, Bar and Suozzi added layers to Opus Jazz’s original image. The overgrown railway, an empty beach, the waterless McCarren Park Pool, a deserted parking garage, a high school gym on a weekend, and the city streets become metaphoric dystopias for these teenagers’ aimlessness and lack of direction in an adult world they don’t understand. And the dancing is re-emphasized as both a struggle for identity and an expression of strength.

"New York Export: Opus Jazz" takes a dry dip in the McCarren Park Pool.
Jody Lee Lipes
"New York Export: Opus Jazz" takes a dry dip in the McCarren Park Pool.

Details

New York Export: Opus Jazz (the film)
Jerome Robbins Theater, Baryshnikov Arts Center
450 West 37th Street
May 26
212-868-4444

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When the original ballet, NY Export: Opus Jazz, premiered in Spoleto, Italy, as part of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Festival of Two Worlds, it was greeted with amazed acclaim. The diverse, racially mixed crew that Robbins had assembled as Ballets: U.S.A. entranced the European public and press. Ballet in sneakers! A jazz score (by Robert Prince)! Steps that looked like what very nimble kids would perform on a Saturday night! During the Cold War, Robbins and his gang rated a gold star for their Americanness.

There’s no getting around the fact that both Prince’s score and Robbins’s image of jazz conjure up the 1950s. And few teenagers today would yell out warnings like “Watch it!” when a boy and a girl waggle their pelvises at each other. Yet for the most part, the feelings of these urban young people seem as likely in the 21st century as they did in the middle of the 20th. And the movie adds a new dimension to the idea of a New York export; it’s a paean of sorts to our city in all its vitality and scruffiness.

The filmmakers have prefaced the ballet and bridged the sections in ways that nail the dancers as New Yorkers. They arrive by almost every method of transportation: subway, taxi, the 59th-Street funicular, on foot. Gretchen Smith gets Adam Hendrickson away from a game arcade (pinball machine, no doubt) and hops on his motorcycle behind him. They’re not, however, going to school or work; they congregate at the McCarren Park Pool as if by appointment. No meetings and greetings. They’re here to dance, as if this were some kind of ritual of empowerment.

Suozzi, Bar, and their colleagues took the adventurous camerawork that Robbins presumably approved for the long-ago performance of Opus Jazz on The Ed Sullivan Show. At first, the rapid cuts are unnerving. This wary, finger-snapping, foot-tapping opening dance is shown in a rapid array of long shots, views from above (so we can see the spatial patterns), medium close-ups of upper bodies, and very close looks at sneaker-clad feet. But the effect is still far from the camera acrobatics legitimized by MTV, and the fast cutting rhythms do abet the restlessness that the ballet conveys.

The film also underscores drama and adds suspense. The camera focuses on Georgina Pazcoquin’s face, as she watches three men climb to a parking garage’s upper level (close-up of feet ascending stairs), and it follows her down a dark hall beyond which, in brighter light, the guys (Hendrickson, Robert Fairchild, and Andrew Veyette) are engaged in a comradely power display, with every leap, skid, and spin a challenge. The lonely girl becomes a sexual tease, apparently with little idea of the risks.

When Amar Ramasar joins them, he slides on his belly headfirst, almost into the camera, signaling the encounter’s escalation into a stylishly restrained rape. (The end of this scene has always been problematic; onstage, backed by Ben Shahn’s abstract city rooftop scenery, it can look as if the men throw the woman over the edge, although members of the original cast deny that that was Robbins’s intent. In the film, the camera closes in on the men’s up-flung arms—as in that West Side Storybasketball shot—but manages to imply something more dangerous than a woman being tossed aside like damaged goods, even though Pazcoquin lives to perform in the finale. )

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