In 1958, Jerome Robbins’ “ballet in sneakers,” NY Export: Opus Jazz, became a smash hit when it was broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show and toured around the world. Set to an evocative jazz score by Robert Prince and abstract urban backdrops by Ben Shahn, the dance told the story of disaffected urban youth through movement that blended ballet, jazz and ballroom dancing with Latin, African and American rhythms to create a powerfully expressive, sexy and contemporary style. Now, the work comes full circle in a vibrant new scripted film adaptation, conceived by New York City Ballet soloists Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, and shot on location around New York City. This feature length film premiered at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it won the Emerging Visions Audience Award, and had its broadcast premiere March 24 on PBS’ Great Performances.
Despite all the success and visibility of its debut, the intervening decades have found Opus Jazz infrequently performed. The concept of taking this little-seen ballet and adapting it for the screen in a modern, real-world context was the brainchild of two New York City Ballet soloists, who, while dancing the ballet, found that it had urban themes and a contemporary relevance that spoke to them. “Sean and I danced Opus Jazz at the New York City Ballet revival in 2005,” explains Bar. “We thought the ballet seemed a bit dated in its 1950’s trappings, but the themes that came out in the dancing — the energy and raw emotion of urban youth — were just as relevant today as they were then.” Mr. Suozzi adds that because the ballet is danced in sneakers, instead of toe shoes, it seemed especially fitting to be filmed on location. “We decided to put our dancers in regular clothes, instead of costumes,” says Suozzi. “It makes the dance even more accessible. Ballet doesn’t have to be a mysterious art form — it’s our most natural, visceral expression.”
Enlisting directors Henry Joost (Catfish, Sundance ’10) and Jody Lee Lipes (Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same, SXSW ’09), Bar and Suozzi set out to make the most ambitious dance film in recent memory — the first to return Jerome Robbins’ choreography to the streets of New York since the movie version of West Side Story. Shot on anamorphic 35mm film, this on-location adaptation utilizes New York City locations like the pre-renovation High Line, McCarren Pool, Coney Island, Red Hook, and Carroll Gardens as backdrops for the five very different movements of the ballet. Scripted interludes between the dance scenes draw the audience further into the lives of the young, restless characters, all played by dancers from the New York City Ballet. “Acting out rage and delight through Robbins’ carefully cultivated steps, the cast demonstrated the pent-up emotions of a new generation,” raves The New York Times of this film. The stylized cinematography captures the majestic landscape of New York City as well the subtle beauty, energy and sensuality of the dance piece. The resulting film is a unique and compelling 46-minute abstract narrative that highlights the form, structure and energy of the dance, while embodying the raw emotional experience of urban youth.
Following the dance film is a 15-minute documentary by director Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, Berlin ’08) and Anna Farrell (Twelve Ways to Sunday) that recounts the history and summarizes the enduring significance and appeal of Opus Jazz. Choreographer (and original West Side Story dancer) Eliot Feld, Sondra Lee (one of Robbins’ original “Opus” dancers), along with other Robbins’ friends and colleagues join the current cast of dancers to contextualize the cultural and historical importance of Mr. Robbins’ career and NY Export: Opus Jazz.
Written for the screen and photographed by Jody Lee Lipes, edited by Zac Stuart-Pontier, and production designed by Ariel Schulman, NY Export: Opus Jazz was produced by Kyle Martin and Melody Roscher. Major funding for NY Export: Opus Jazz was provided by the Jerome Robbins Foundation, Emily Blavatnik, Chandra Jessee, Gillian Attfield, Arlene C. Cooper, Judy Bernstein Bunzl and Nick Bunzl, Marty and Perry Granoff, and Nancy Norman Lassalle. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell is series producer and David Horn is executive producer.