Appellate Judge James A. Stewart was disappointed; he didn't see any saxophone-playing penguins.
"No one before or since, I guess you could even say, has incorporated
street vernacular into dance to the extent that (Jerome) Robbins has."
All New York's a stage to Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi. The two New York City Ballet performers went behind the camera—and into the streets—to film a new production of NY Export: Opus Jazz, a 1958 ballet by Jerome Robbins (West Side Story) with jazz music by Robert Prince. The 1958 original production appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and this version has been seen on Great Performances.
It may be a ballet, but when the film opens there's a stark reality created by urban images and, more importantly, ambient sound. Mostly it's the normal hustle-and-bustle, but waves and seagulls accompany a beach scene and skateboards make a whizzing noise as they zip by. The first strains of music come from street musicians.
Once the milieu is set, though, the dance begins. Against the formidable backdrop of a brick arch, the dancers start to move and weave. The real New York locations are stunning, but when they're cleared for filming they become a stage, some of their urban character giving way to the stylized movements and creating a surreal city landscape of motion. The production goes for the natural—ordinary street clothing and interactions—whenever possible. The performance doesn't completely become an organic part of the city streets and backdrops, but it's much more so than the stylized sets and costumes I saw in Ed Sullivan clips allowed it to be. Even when it's not real, it's beautiful.
Especially impressive is a closing segment that uses fast cuts to compare ballet to the games of the street: streetball, football practice, skateboarding, and jump rope, to name a few.
The picture has occasional flaring, but otherwise looks good. The sound is fantastic. The ambient sound at the beginning puts you in the city streets, and the jazz is delightful to the ear.
A modern making-of, A Ballet in Sneakers: Jerome Robbins and Opus Jazz, includes clips from Ed Sullivan and interviews with current and 1958 members of the New York City Ballet. Jerome Robbins' Ballets: USA from the 1950s shows rehearsals and an extended segment of the original dancing, along with some shots of 1950s New York; the black-and-white picture in this United States Information Service production is weathered, with lots of lines. John Lithgow writes the booklet essay.
If you appreciate modern dance, you'll find Opus Jazz delightful. With the city backdrops, it manages to improve on some already impressive choreography.
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