Ballet For A New Generation

Two New York City Ballet soloists set out to make a film of Jerome Robbins’s NY Export: Opus Jazz.
Published in the June/July 2008 issue.

While ballet dancers in sneakers performing a steamy duet in the middle of two abandoned train tracks may sound like something out of a game of truth or dare, it’s actually a scene in a new film being produced by New York City Ballet soloists Sean Suozzi and Ellen Bar. Based on Jerome Robbins’s NY Export: Opus Jazz and entitled Opus Jazz: The Film, this movie will be the first to feature Robbins’s choreography since the iconic West Side Story, as well as the first film to be conceived, produced and danced by members of NYCB.

Originally choreographed in 1958, Opus Jazz is steeped in themes that speak to every generation—the energy of youth, a hunger for life and throwing caution to the wind. Suozzi and Bar, both 27, are not only colleagues but best friends who fell in love with the ballet when it was revived for NYCB’s 2005 spring season at the State Theater—the first time the rarely seen ballet, created for the first Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, had been performed by NYCB.

Neither Suozzi nor Bar had worked directly with the choreographer. “Robbins died right after I got in the company, so I only sat in a few rehearsals with him as a corps understudy,” says Bar. “It was thrilling to watch him work. I always felt a connection with his ballets and that I understood him through his ballets.”   

Opus Jazz, which is choreographed in five sections, immediately struck Suozzi and Bar as the perfect piece to introduce newcomers to ballet. “When we were rehearsing in our own clothes, the dancing felt very contemporary and of-the-moment,” says Suozzi. “The fact that it is a piece from the 1950s doesn’t make it any less modern.” The choreography, which includes knee slides and sharp, angular arms may be reminiscent of jazz, but the movement is essentially classical. The casual-looking costumes (tights, sneakers and tunics) add to the effect. In the movie, the dancers wear contemporary street wear.

“I remember standing in the wings and thinking, ‘If the audience likes this piece so much onstage, I wonder what they’d think if we could show them the choreography in context, to put it in the city that inspired its creation in the first place,” says Suozzi.

The two dancers put together a proposal and met with each of the nine members of The Robbins Rights Trust. “We didn’t have any formal help with the proposal,” says Bar. “I wrote it, and Sean designed it; we just knew it had to reflect our vision, and we followed our instincts about the questions people reading it would have.” The project, with a projected budget of $800,000, was unanimously approved, and Suozzi and Bar received the first filming rights given by the trust since Robbins’s death in 1998. And while NYCB has no official tie to the project, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins endorses it.   

While prepared for the possibility of not being taken seriously, the pair say they’ve received a more positive and supportive response than expected—leaving them free to focus on their responsibilities as producers. “We are in charge of leading the team and making sure that the vision is realized,” says Bar.

“This means making final creative decisions, choosing who we work with, choosing locations, making final costume decisions, as well as keeping the project afloat by trying to raise interest and funds.”

Famous New York artist Ben Shahn designed the ballet’s original abstract urban backdrop, but for the film, Suozzi and Bar have found a different city location for each of the ballet’s sections. “Many dances wouldn’t translate to film, because they are meant for the stage, but this one not only translates, with real locations it seems to take on new dimension and meaning,” says Bar.

The goal was not to find the most beautiful shot but the most appropriate one to go with the mood or emotional quality of the dances. “Shooting on location also appeals because it puts dance in a real place, among real people, making it a form of expression that is easier to identify with,” says Bar. “The locations we’ve chosen portray the city as both urban and remote, a place where you can still be an individual among millions of people.”

As the film begins, each of the 16 characters arrives at their hangout, the Tobacco Warehouse, the remains of an 18th-century brick structure with arches and only sky for a roof in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. “One person might be coming from the subway and another walking down a street,” says Suozzi. Other locations include a stage in an empty theater, a school gymnasium and a city rooftop at night, where three boys and one girl, after feeling restless at a party, have gone exploring only to find their ways to each other under the stars.   

The fourth movement, a duet called “Passage for Two,” was the only one completed at press time. It has already won an award in the Netherlands for adapting dance from stage to screen. The section was filmed atop The High Line, an elevated train track on the far west side of Manhattan. “Passage for Two” was shot over two days last August, hours before construction was to begin on the multi-year renovation of the area into a public park.

The rundown and overgrown space had to be cleared of hundreds of beer bottles, a toaster oven, kitchenware and a live cat before shooting. The performers, NYCB soloists Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall, danced the ultra sexy pas de deux 25 times under the blazing sun during two sweltering days. Footage of the day’s last run through, caught in the midst of a magnificent sunset under a sky pregnant with rain, made the final cut.

Shot in one continuous take, using only available light and 35-mm film, the end product has a slightly retro look that suits the section’s subtext. The duet is about two people who can’t be together. At the time it was choreographed, the piece caused a stir when performed by an interracial couple.

“Many artists want to challenge audiences, and being controversial is of course one way of doing that,” says Suozzi. “But we also think that Jerry would never make an artistic choice purely to be controversial. It could be as simple as the aesthetic beauty of the way the two skin tones look next to each other; you can really read it however you want, and that’s the beauty of it.” The sensual movements, mixed with passion and a sense of urgency that imply a forbidden love, are punctuated by having the lovers meet on a deserted, off-limits train track high above the street.

The creative team—Suozzi, Bar, co-directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes and art director Ariel Schulman—works collaboratively, a process that has allowed them to learn from each other while maintaining a sense of responsibility to make something that Robbins himself, a notorious taskmaster and perfectionist, would have approved of.   

Suozzi and Bar have a lot of work ahead of them. Despite having the majority of the budget still left to raise, the two would like to have the money in hand by August in order to finish shooting when NYCB is on break. “Our hopes for the film are for it to make people excited about and interested in dance, so that they seek out live dance and make it a part of their lives,” explains Bar. “The characters are restless urban teens, wearing street clothing and dealing with contemporary issues, which makes them much easier to identify with than people in tights or tiaras and tutus.”

Sara Jarrett is a freelance writer in New York City.