Catch Jerome Robbins' Snazzy Opus Jazz on TV

March 23rd, 2010

by Susan Yung for SundayArts

NY Export: Opus Jazz, to Robert Prince’s score, with sets by Ben Shahn, is one of Jerome Robbins’ “sneaker ballets,” considered by the choreographer as a sort of abstract counterpart to his West Side Story Suite. While it is enjoyable to see these two works performed by New York City Ballet at the Koch Theater, they can both suffer from feeling lightweight, aided by spanking white Keds, spotless jeans, and a ballet dancer’s general lack of thuggishness. Two soloists from the company, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, have produced a 45-minute film version that has some welcome verismo and grittiness, to premiere on PBS on March 24 at 8pm on Great Performances: Dance in America. Filmed in locations around the city, the film captures both the anomie of being a youth in the city, as well as an adrenalizing antidote in the form of dance.

Bar and Suozzi enlisted filmmakers Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes, who shot the film in 35mm format, resulting in a high quality snapshot of this big city that both saps and inspires us. You may recognize Coney Island, McCarren Pool, and the Highline before it was renovated, settings for some of the dreamier scenes. But providing equal texture are shots set in a diner, a school gym, a wall-less warehouse or garage space, and a timeworn theater. They are reminders to those of us who migrated here as adults that kids indeed grow up here.

This film features a number of wide shots that reduce each dancer to the size of a shrimp, and some of the scenes shot in daylight appear flat and washed out; the interior lighting is much better controlled, as you’d expect. We also get to see some elaborate choreographic formations from the occasional overhead perspective that we’d never be able to see in the theater. The cameras follow Rebecca Rutherford and Craig Hall—seeking to get away from their rowdy friends—as they perform a romantic duet atop the weed-covered Highline, lit by the sunset. A big gymnasium scene channels the kids’ pent-up energy and rebelliousness. Close up shots remind us that these dancers are athletes, throwing themselves into the movement with skill and daring. It’s wonderful to see some of the city’s (and the world’s) finest young dancers perform in this New York choreographer’s ballet about the city, set in the city. It’s an excellent reminder of why we choose to live here. And if you miss it on March 24, it will be on Sunday Arts on March 28 at 12:30.

Image: The ensemble cast of dancers of the New York City Ballet, Andrew Veyette and Ashley Laracey in the foreground, in the “Improvisations” section, filmed in a school gymnasium in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Credit: Kate Reeder.