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.

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. )

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.

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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