Jerome Robbins was a true crossover artist. A two-time Academy Award-winner, four-time Tony Award-winner, and the only American artist capable of playing second-fiddle to George Balanchine at New York City Ballet, Robbins left a legacy of multi-platform choreography in his substantial wake when he died in 1998.
Now, on the eve of the 2008 Jerome Robbins Festival, two young dancers are doing their part to see that his legacy endures by turning one of Robbins's most accessible but least frequently performed ballets — his 1958 "N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz" — into a film, "Opus Jazz the Film." The project, an ambitious undertaking by two 26-year-old NYCB dancers, Sean Suozzi and Ellen Bar, marks the first dance film since Robbins's masterpiece "West Side Story" to be granted the support of the Jerome Robbins Trust. And it may show a new way to transmit and translate dance to a general audience.
The film, currently in production, is unlike most ballet films. The dancers wear street clothes, performing in cutoff denim or oxford shirts. The cameras rove on dollies and cranes, rather than shooting from a fixed perspective. And, perhaps most important, rather than an onstage or studio setup, the film is being shot on location in mostly public settings in five different areas of New York — one for each movement of the ballet — including the High Line, the scenes from which are already completed, and, if all goes according to plan, the Tobacco Warehouse in DUMBO. A Robbins trust adviser, Ellen Sorrin, said the trust expects the project to "set up a new perspective on ballet on film."
"Often ballet on film is presented in a very linear way," she said. "and there's nothing that's been done to it that makes it different from the stage production. They're taking it away from the stage and giving it something that they couldn't give it otherwise."
The seed for the idea was planted when the film's directors, Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Bar, both soloist dancers, were cast in NYCB's presentation of the ballet in 2005. Until its staging two years ago, "N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz," a ballet set in the abstract streets of New York City to a jazz score by Robert Prince and set against backdrops by artist Ben Shahn, had never been performed by NYCB. The work was originally created for the first Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, in June 1958, after which time Robbins and his troupe presented it on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1959. Since then, it has been performed infrequently, mostly by the Joffrey Ballet. The dancers, longtime personal friends both well-versed in the Robbins canon, fell in love with the ballet when it was brought to NYCB. "We had never seen the ballet or even heard of it," Mr. Suozzi said. "We felt like we knew pretty much all of Jerome Robbins's work, so this really just came as a surprise," Ms. Bar said.
The work has a contemporary resonance. "Feeling very much like a minority group in this threatening and explosive world, the young have so identified with the dynamics, kinetic impetus, the drives and ‘coolness' of today's jazz steps that these dances have become an expression of our youths' outlook and their attitudes toward the contemporary world around them," the ballet's original notes read, "just as each era's dance has significantly reflected the character of our changing world and a manner of dealing with it."
Nearly 50 years later, "It really speaks to us about being young and about living in New York City," Ms. Bar said. "We thought this could be something that really got people who didn't think they were interested in dance into dance."
So Ms. Bar and Mr. Suozzi gathered their friends — filmmakers, museum curators, artists — and urged them to attend a performance. Almost immediately, two of those friends, the filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, signed on to produce the project they had heard Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Bar discussing.
"The idea of putting something so visceral out on the street in New York really appealed to us," Mr. Joost, 24, said. "We all grew up watching ‘West Side Story' and we were so impressed by the choreography that we thought it was time to let this dance, which is a lesser known Robbins piece, come to light."
But the filmmakers were aware of the trail of projects before them that were declined by the Jerome Robbins Trust, which is notoriously conservative about lending its approval. "We wanted this to be a partnership with them," Mr. Suozzi said. "We didn't just want their permission. We wanted their blessing."
The two prepared a proposal, including an endorsement from NYCB's artistic director, Peter Martins. (Though Mr. Suozzi, Ms. Bar, and the other 16 dancers involved in the film are employees of NYCB, the company has no official relationship to the project.)
Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Bar did not know it at the time, but Robbins — who wasn't particularly fond of his ballets being filmed — had expressed interest in a project similar to "Opus Jazz the Film" shortly before his death. "He liked the idea of a whole stage and didn't take to the choices that a camera would make. He liked the human eye being able to make its own choices," Ms. Sorrin said. Shortly before his death, Robbins was approached about a project to films his ballets on location in Europe. Though the project never developed, "it gave us the feeling that he was interested in presenting ballet in another location — somewhere that would create another mood," Ms. Sorrin said.
Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Bar received unanimous approval from the trust.
In June, after identifying a twoday window during which their dancers for the fourth movement, Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall, would be available at the same time as their filmmakers, Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Bar cobbled together the rest of their crew, costumes, the support of a pro bono law firm, and $50,000 in private donations — before coming to the uneasy realization that they still had no filming location.
But then the president of an arts advocacy group, Alliance for the Arts, and a friend of Robbins's, Randall Bourscheidt, put the pair in touch with members of Friends of the High Line and the Parks Department, and the two made their pitch a second time around, albeit with a different angle. "We said, ‘This is all New York artists: it's Jerome Robbins, it's Robert Prince, it's Ben Shahn, it's New York City Ballet. This is so much about New York and about what you guys are trying to do, too.'"
The Highline, like the trust, took the bait.
Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Bar plan to shoot the first movement at the Tobacco Warehouse, though they have not yet received approval to do so. And they have tentative locations for the other movements, including a rooftop, a gymnasium, and an abandoned theater. Filming is expected to be completed in the early months of 2008 to enable the project to make its premiere at the Robbins Festival, which marks not only the 90th anniversary of Robbins's birth and the 10th of his death, but the also 50th of the ballet itself. Mr. Suozzi and Ms. Bar also plan to present "Opus Jazz the Film" at the 2008 Spoleto Festival and are currently in discussions with PBS, though these plans have not been finalized.
For now, though, the few moments on-screen of Ms. Rutherford and Mr. Hall performing on the High Line against a setting sun are fodder enough.
"We had an idea of everything in our head and to see it realized …" Mr. Suozzi trailed off. "It wasn't as we imagined it; it was better."