A highly cinematic restaging of a jazzy 1958 Jerome Robbins “ballet in sneakers,” Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost’s “NY Export: Opus Jazz” thoroughly revitalizes the piece’s once timely choreography through inventive use of out-of-the-way Gotham locales and brilliant camerawork by lenser Lipes (“Afterschool,” “Tiny Furniture”), whose striking compositions sound grace notes of their own. This 46-minute gem, which preemed at SXSW before airing on PBS’ “Great Performances,” opens Nov. 5 at Brooklyn’s ReRun Gastropub Theater in its spiffy 35mm widescreen format, coupled with a short making-of docu highlighting Robbins’ original ballet.
In 1958, one year after he choreographed “West Side Story,” Jerome Robbins created an abstract, non-narrative condensation of that show entitled “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” set to music by Robert Prince and danced by a young company celebrating the explosive joys and frustrations of Gotham teens. The ballet wowed European auds and was broadcast on “The Ed Sullivan show,” with Robbins himself dictating the camera direction.
Lipes and Joost’s revamped film version, the brainchild of New York City Ballet lead dancers Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi (who exec produced), expands the opus by adding intriguing shots of young dancers arrestingly framed in their native habitats en route to the performance. One girl gracefully walks along a beach, while a boy immerses himself in a videogame. Casually dressed in T-shirts and jeans, they all converge on an empty swimming pool to erupt in tiny bursts of stylized movements, coming together and separating in shifting configurations, as Lipes’ multi-angled camera positions emphasize the dancers’ control of space.
But Lipes deploys different lensing modes for the ballet’s five discrete movements (static, Steadicam, handheld, crane, dolly). A vast, windowless warehouse at night provides the setting for the second movement: a seduction scene in which a girl stalks a group of males, pairing off with one or another. Lipes’ camera tracks past a succession of pillars, momentarily obscuring and/or reframing the dancers’ sinuous moves in complex counterpoint.
In the third movement, a high school gym witnesses giddy oneupmanship as each member of the corps cockily tries to outdo the next. In the fourth, a man and woman sit back-to-back in a diner, each intensely aware of the other’s presence. They exit to perform an exquisite pas de deux on the grassy, overgrown rails of the High Line, the sun slowly sinking behind them.
An old, deserted theater becomes a character in itself in the pic’s final number, mostly recorded in long shot as Lipes’ camera snakes down aisles or gazes from balconies. Lipes also takes Bob Fosse’s predilection for shooting directly into backstage lights and makes illumination an evolving element.