A new generation dances Jerome Robbins' 'ballet in sneakers' to the big screen
Between Robert Prince's bebop score and Jerome Robbins' finger-snapping beatnik moves, NY Export: Opus Jazz reeks of late-Fifties "cool." So you could have forgiven the twentysomething dancers who performed it in a 2005 revival at New York City Ballet for seeing the "ballet in sneakers" as a "museum piece." Instead, they connected so personally to the work that two of them, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, wanted to commit their version to film. "The choreography really communicates those powerful youthful emotions and the energy of the city," says Bar, and it gave them the idea that the dance "could look and feel timeless if it took place in the city as we knew it. West Side Story, especially the opening, is so powerful because it's shot on location, and since this piece was inspired by the city, it made sense to put it back where it came from." With Henry Joost (Catfish) and Jody Lee Lipes (Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same) recruited to direct, the team took to the streets, filming each of the ballet's five segments in a different location. The result, expansively captured in anamorphic 35mm, grounds Robbins' ballet solidly in the urban landscape, in the present, and in contemporary dancers' bodies. Before its broadcast on PBS' Great Performances on March 24, NY Export: Opus Jazz will have its world premiere at South by Southwest. On behalf of herself and Suozzi, Bar explained by e-mail how the film was made.
Austin Chronicle: What concerns did you have about translating the dance from stage to film?
Ellen Bar: We never wanted to make a document of the ballet; we wanted to breathe new life into it and have people relate to it across generations, because we ourselves did. We were teenagers and living on our own in New York when we moved here to become ballet dancers, so we understood on a visceral level what these characters were about. We wanted to take advantage of the medium of film to give the audience a window into the lives of these characters, to weave the different sections together, and to motivate the dancing by real situations and emotions. It was precisely because we wanted to expand on the ballet, and not just make an archival work, that the Robbins Rights Trust allowed us to do it. They feel a strong responsibility to Jerry's work and have never allowed something like this before. I think they felt that it was a bold endeavor and that it had artistic merit – and whether or not Jerry would have liked it, he would have admired the spirit of it.
AC: How did the location shooting affect the dance work?
EB: Initially, we thought: "They're in sneakers, they can be anywhere!" We forgot about how physical it is, how much they jump, turn, and roll and use the ground in this ballet. You take that for granted onstage. During the High Line sequence, we got to the location and realized they had to dance literally between train tracks for the shot to look good, and we went: "No way. Uh-uh. Not possible." But Jody and Henry were better at asking the dancers to do things like that sometimes, because they didn't know them as well as we did and because they didn't have that knowledge of how much it hurts! In the film, you have dancers dancing on concrete, dirt, train tracks, splintered wood, and waxed gymnasium flooring. But they just set their minds to it and didn't complain. They were like soldiers. The crew had so much respect; they'd never seen anything like it.
We also had to adjust the spacing of the dance not just to suit the location but to work with camera. Jerome Robbins understood the difference between theatre and film, and he was always the first to adjust his work for camera, so there was a precedent there. West Side Story [helped give us a] way of understanding how camera and choreography could work together and how each could make the other more powerful.
AC: As your idea of filming this dance became a reality, what surprised you about the film version?
EB: We had seen many bad dance films, and we wanted to make sure that the dance was the star; and we think because of how it's shot and edited, the architecture of the dance is clear even for people who've never seen it before, and that makes us really happy. Having danced the ballet ourselves onstage, we had seen the dance from nearly every angle, and we had fallen in love with certain viewpoints that the audience never got to see, and it's really satisfying to be able to share those now. We feel like the energy and dynamism we felt while actually dancing the steps comes off the screen, because of the camera and also because of the sound design. I remember Jody said that one of the things that really surprised him was how much the sound of the dancers' feet tapped out a rhythm that complemented the music and created a kind of counterpoint to it. It's an unusual element; dancers are used to the sound and rhythm of their own feet, but usually the audience doesn't get to hear it.
In general, the film is better than we'd imagined it in our heads, so that's the kind of surprise you really hope for; but there's also a reason for that, and it's because we refused to compromise on quality. Even when we were struggling for funding, we knew that it was better to not make the film at all than to sacrifice its potential by shooting on a crappy format or cutting the things that would make it special. It's a project that shouldn't exist, and nearly didn't exist, because it doesn't fit in any of the usual categories. We were lucky enough to have a lot of help from a lot of really incredible people, who donated their time or money or helped make connections that would help. But it's also because we're both a little insane, and very tenacious, and when someone tells us something is impossible, we generally don't listen. Not the first hundred times, anyway.
NY Export: Opus Jazz
Emerging Visions, World Premiere
Saturday, March 13, 6:45pm, Ritz 2
Tuesday, March 16, 3:45pm, Ritz 1
Saturday, March 20, 7pm, Ritz 2