You have to hand it to the NYCB dancers. These sleek creatures, trained to conform to George Balanchine’s image of elegance, look vigorous, impetuous, and rough around the edges, as they skid and shimmy across the squeaky boards of the gym floor. After the get-together in the school, with friends showing off for one another, they congregate in a coffee shop, joking and trying to spin a quarter. This is where we’re introduced to Rutherford and Hall as loners with a growing awareness of each other. As in the original cast, they form a mixed-race couple, although in 2010, many viewers may not be aware of the impact this had in 1958.

Now when I watch the duet on the High Line tracks, in the context of the complete NY Export: Opus Jazz film, it resonates much more powerfully. The two have slipped away from their friends to find a place to be alone. Their awkwardly tender opening moves suggest that they’re just discovering each other and trying to be gentle about it. When Hall gets around to lifting his partner, and we see Rutherford flying against the gradually evolving summer sunset, she seems to be looking for a way to get beyond the gritty scene, searching for a new landscape the pair might travel to together. In this ending, he’s the only one to walk away; she’s left, sitting uncomfortably in the weeds.

It was clever of Bar and Suozzi to set the final dance in a grand old theater, in which the dancers switch on the lights themselves. This is the most formal of Robbins’s sections, even though there’s still a bit of follow-the-leader and showing off. Now all of the dancers wear white T-shirts, tight jeans, and white sneakers. Seen artfully from above, they’re dots surrounded by the black shadows of their own legs. No audience but us; the camera walks us down the aisle through an empty theater.

"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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After all these desolate spaces and kids trying to figure out how to live without exploding, we’re taken on a stroll through a more-or-less happily populated city: from a ballet studio to a leafy Central Park swarming with jump-ropers, skateboarders, kids on swings, ball games of all sorts, two girls doing homework, a woman meditating on a yoga mat.

The 15-minute documentary that follows focuses on the history of the work and Ballets: U.S.A., as well as on Robbins himself. Suozzi, Bar, and some of the dancers in the film comment on the ballet’s validity for them in their highly disciplined, labor-intensive, here-and-now world. And Sondra Lee, one of the original Ballets: U.S.A. dancers, talks of NY Export: Opus Jazz’s impact in 1958 and Robbins’s commitment to making dancers look like human beings dancing for and with one another—a microcosm of a particular society. In this ballet, she says, as in many of his works, he gave you the life of its subject, its soul, its heart. And without cuteness or sentimentality, he did indeed.

See NY Export: Opus Jazz on a big screen if you can. It’s a big movie.

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