Dance on film has more than its fair share of detractors: as with any performance, the artifact often cannot compare to the live experience. Ready to silence the critics, and perhaps bring the feelings around dance documentation to a different place, are New York City Ballet soloists Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi. Their new film, NY Export: Opus Jazz, screened Tuesday evening at Lincoln Center and will air tonight on PBS. Filmed in a variety of iconic locations across the city, from Coney Island to a pre-renovation High Line, Opus Jazz returns Jerome Robbins’ eponymous 1958 ballet to the streets that inspired it. Working to a jazzy score by Robert Prince, Robbins perfected the candid dance language he introduced to America a year earlier with his choreography for West Side Story in the five-movement work that quickly became a modern classic after, appropriately enough, being broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In the new film, which Bar and Suozzi produced with the assistance of directors Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost, the City Ballet dancers look like high-school students out for the summer, leaping and twirling through the streets, fresh-faced exemplars of all-American youth in beat-up sneakers and dusty tank tops. The opening movement finds a group gliding about in McCarren Pool; the last sees a performance on stage at Jersey City’s Loew’s Theatre. You can almost feel the seawater beneath the boardwalk and smell the French fries at the greasy diner where the kids relax. Opus Jazz commits the cardinal sin of filming dance—close-ups that cut off legs and feet—but, in recompense, takes aesthetic cues from the cinéma vérité style so beloved by independent filmmakers today.
Throughout, there’s little sense of the ways New York has changed since the 1950s: teenagers still fight and flirt, August days are still hot and sticky, the sun still sets over New Jersey. Opus Jazz makes a case for New York as a city for the young and the disenchanted, the lolling heads and languid snapping in the choreography a counterpoint to the barely-contained raw energy of youth in revolt.
Photography by Jody Lee Lipes