Indie Film Review – NY Export: Opus Jazz
I’ve made it no secret that I am an admirer of dance. To me, dancing is probably the most expressive art form. You may not notice it at first, but dancing is all around us. When a football team scores a touchdown and the fans jump wildly up and down in celebration, that is a form of dance. Dancing encapsulates the pure emotion and feeling of the performer, and when a dancer is perfectly in sync with the music and their own movement, dance becomes the literal representation of sound. Now, I was never formally trained, but as a self-taught hip-hop and street dancer, I can understand this. When you’re hitting the music just the right way, when you allow yourself not to think about what you’re doing, and lose yourself in the moment, all feeling of exhaustion goes away, it seems as if the music has actually taken over.
NY Export: Opus Jazz (2010) is a dance film in every shape and form. The film is a modern adaptation of the stage production created in the 1950s by Jerome Robbins, nicknamed the “ballet in sneakers.” Fun fact: Robbins was the dance choreographer best known for his contribution to the film West Side Story (1961). That film was about rival gangs battling it out on the streets of New York City. The energetic, athletic, and urban style of that film clearly has its roots in the ballet Opus Jazz, where every person, every movement, and every musical sound showcases the very feeling of what it’s like to be a young person living in the one of the greatest cities in the world. With music by Robert Prince that evokes a jazzy feel mixed with Latin and African rhythms, and with urban backdrops designed by Ben Shahn, the ballet became a smash hit around the world, peaking with a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. Flash forward to the present, where two New York City Ballet soloists, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, feeling inspired to reintroduce the ballet to the public eye, enlist the help of filmmakers Henry Joost (of Catfish (2010) fame) and Jody Lee Lipes, and what you have is one of the more raw and fascinating dance films of recent memory.
If you are not interested in the art of dance or ballet, then this film is clearly not for you. The film lacks everything in terms of a conventional fictional film: there is no plot, no story; dancers don’t even have any names. There is very little to no dialogue spoken, and what dialogue is heard is sparse and disconnected, as if heard from far away. In place of this lack of fictional story telling are a number of scenes completely dedicated to the dancers and their performances. Each scene begins roughly the same way: a number of young kids, in their early twenties, lounge around in a particular part of the city, whether it be a park, a basketball gym, by the beach, or inside an empty warehouse. Without saying a word, the dancers, seemingly already in tune and aware of each other, slowly gather around, and as the jazzy music swells and takes over, the dancers’ movements become lively and spontaneous. Of course, we are not told why these people all gathered in this particular area, and it is never explained to us just why they decide to suddenly break out in dance, but each scene seems to express a specific feeling about what it’s like to be young and alive. Wearing jeans and brightly colored sneakers, we can tell without ever being told that these people are full of fun, excitement, love, and mischief.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is the second dance number. Set inside a large warehouse, the scene features three young male dancers that escape from the rest of the group to a hideaway room. Once there, they break out in a dance routine that is tough, dirty, and aggressive. What they don’t realize is that one of the female dancers spotted them, and followed them to the room. Suddenly, interrupting their routine with a dance that pretty much says, “I belong here,” the female dancer joins their squad, with choreography that is both feminine and as tough and aggressive as her male counterparts. She jives and spins with each of them frenetically, and in a way I sensed that she was not intimidated by being the only girl, but rather she was testing each of them to see if they were good enough to dance with her.