In 1957, Jerome Robbins created, directed and, most memorably, choreographed a stage musical updating the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet. Critics wrote rave reviews, predicting how the choreography pieces would shape future musical theatre and how the blending and fusing of different techniques and styles actually created a new genre of musical theatre. Most famously, West Side Story projected the dance narrative above the conventional way in which a play tells a story, ie the plot and dialogue. In 1961, the show’s screen adaptation, directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, solidified the choreographer’s impact on stage and film musicals that would follow, creating the most realistic of all film musicals, with its routines still being taught as repertoire in dance schools as it, indeed, created its own school, in terms of choreographing jazz music.
Between the two ‘Stories’, lied a third project. NY Export: Opus Jazz is a piece of several abstract choreographies by Robbins, performed to a musical piece of the same name by Robert Prince. Imagine a West Side Story without the Romeo and Juliet. The moves are there, the youthful energy and ready-to-explode mood sway the dancers to the beat. The project was presented as a ‘ballet in sneakers’, being performed by Ballets USA dancers. However, it’s what most people teach as musical theatre jazz, a fact telling of how Robbins’ work influenced the genre. NY Export premiered at the Ed Sullivan Show, performed on Broadway and toured the US and the rest of the world. Robbins later became balletmaster of the New York Ballet Center and NY Export was revived by the New York Ballet School in 2005.
In 2010 a film adapting the choreography for the big screen was finally released. With the success of West Side Story, one would think that other works of Robbins’ work would be more widely known, and this film came to do just that. The film version of the ballet was envisioned by two New York City Ballet soloists, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, who danced the ballet in 2005. While getting acquainted with the pieces, Bar and Suozzi felt that, while dated in some respects, the feeling and youthful outlook on life of the choreography very much applied to today. Henry Joost and Jody Lee Pipes were chosen to direct the film, updating it by shooting the different parts of the original choreography in different parts of New York City. In this way, the film manages to strike up a very true connection between the work and the time it’s now set in. While this attempt runs the risk of making the routines look even more dated against the urban backdrop of contemporary NYC, the film hits the nail on the head, as it manages to showcase how moves of the 1950s can still communicate the same emotions of passion, rawness, energy and angst of American youth. The original production had abstract urban sets and the film uses the actual buildings and spaces those sets were based upon, reminding us that the urban jungle has the exact same effect on young people striving to create, fall in love, have sex, have fun or just live everyday life.
If West Side Story put choreography before conventional story telling, NY Export: Opus Jazz takes that to the extreme. Very few words are spoken and they’re not meant to be heard. They’re there to create an atmosphere and set a mood. Other than that, it’s all about the choreography and how it’s interpreted by the very talented dancers. The moves come from jazz, ballet, Latin and African dances, among others. All the numbers exude passion, each of a different quality; they communicate the vitality of the dancers, as they ooze with energy and vigour. Apart from the minimal narrative which puts the dance in a wider context, the story is to be found in the movement itself. In this way, the film is very much about form, as dancing is as well. Camera angles help not only to draw attention to the dancers’ movement and intricate routines but also to how the routines connect to the environment around them. The cinematography and lighting brings out the contrast between the dancers and their background while it, still, serves as another way to bind the two together. In essence, the visual style of the film plays the most important part in highlight how the contemporary setting of Robbins’ work fits the original work’s message.
The dancers are highly skilled but, also, seductive. In fact, the routines are all about the sexual energy and flirting. Dance, due to its physicality, is a much more appropriate medium to convey the feeling of sexual desire and even anger, tension and raw emotion, in general. And that’s why, ultimately, this ballet, and film, work so well. Rather than discussing romance, love, sex and all other explosive emotions young people feel, they just show them. The mood shifts from urgent to cool, bodies move in different ways and then in perfect unison, dancers goof off with each other and then create poignant performances as a group. The film is an irresistible combination of timeless choreography, exciting and stylish dancing interpreted in a fresh way which proves that strong emotion and innovation in art can stand the test of time. NY Export: Opus Jazz makes you want to dance, experience life, want to listen to jazz all night long and is ready to turn even those resisting the pleasures of filmed dance numbers into believers!
NY Export: Opus Jazz at IMDb
NY Export: Opus Jazz at Rotten Tomatoes
Jerome Robbins at Wikipedia
NY Export: Opus Jazz (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
New Robbins Ballet Acclaimed By Spoleto Audience and Critics at nytimes.com
New York Sees Jerome Robbins’ Company in Works Created Especially for European Audiences at nytimes.com
Leaping a Generation Gap to Revive a Robbins Ballet at nytimes.com