A Jerome Robbins dance, reborn
In November 1959, "The Ed Sullivan Show" – the Sunday evening variety hour that was a staple of family TV viewing for decades -- presented three sections of “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” a potent, highly contemporary work by Jerome Robbins. He had choreographed it for Ballets: USA -- a small, feisty troupe he founded and led soon after he directed and choreographed “West Side Story.” In “Opus Jazz” he abstracted and synthesized the seething youthful energy that filled the stage in that landmark musical, and when Ballets: USA toured Europe, the work caused a sensation. “Here is the Jerome Robbins ballet that conquered the world and did so much good for America,” Sullivan intoned when he introduced the three excerpts – for which Robbins himself prepared and rehearsed sophisticated camerawork, giving himself a tutorial for the film of “West Side Story,” which was filmed the following year.
Fifty years later, “Opus Jazz” returns to television. An ensemble of New York City Ballet dancers – born just too late to have worked with Robbins directly – spent their 2009 summer break performing “Opus Jazz” for a film that brings a tough, edgy contemporary look to a work that epitomized 1950s cool. The Robert Prince score certainly reverberates with the flavor of the beat poets and hipster sophistication, but the dancers perform Robbins’ smart, layered choreography wearing casual street wear, dancing with freshness, vigor and commitment that make it resonate anew.
The resulting film – with interpolated interludes creating connective tissue between the ballet’s five movements, and a brief appended documentary section – airs Wednesday, March 24, on PBS, marking a welcome return for the longstanding "Great Performances: Dance in America" series. The project was the brainchild of two NYCB soloists, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi. As soon as they danced in their company’s premiere of “Opus Jazz” in 2005, they immediately sensed its potential as a film. They enlisted 20-something filmmakers Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes for the project.
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Photo: A scene from "Opus Jazz." Credit: Yaniv Schulman / PBS