Plugged In

August 21, 2011


NY Export: Opus Jazz

Created by Sean Suozzi and Ellen Bar

60 mins. + 15 mins. of extras $20.

Georgina Pazcoguin wading at Coney Island, Adam Hendrickson playing a pinball machine, Robert Fairchild taking out the garbage. From this near nothingness grows a fabulously sensual experience that sets Jerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz (1958) in the real New York City landscape.

The women of New York City Ballet let their hair down and the men let their energy bound. The resulting film, conceived by NYCB soloists Sean Suozzi and Ellen Bar and directed by Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes, brings Robbins’ version of American teenagers to life. It defines “cool.”

Each of the major dance scenes are led up to and away from with new hints of narrative, so the full-out dance scenes, filmed at startling angles, carry more emotional weight. The locales include the humongous, empty McCarren swimming pool in Brooklyn; a school gym; and a spooky, abandoned warehouse.

What is cool? Desire expressed and left, is the answer of the celebrated final duet of Opus Jazz, performed here by Craig Hall and Rachel Rutherford. Robert Prince’s wary music matches the dance’s melancholy tension—and so do the weeds of the pre-rehabbed Highline west-side wilderness.

Many scenes tread the line between life and performance. Rebecca Krohn applies makeup in a tiny room and then suddenly joins the others on a huge stage. They’re performing for an empty house and a slowly panning camera. They could have been in West Side Story (made the year before Opus Jazz). At some points they’re even doubled over like the Jets. (“Here come the Jets like a bat outta hell!”) During the dance at the gym, the pelvic pumping, jutting shoulders, and knocking knees make the word “jazz” in the title well earned. The dancers (you’ll recognize your favorites) slouch and grin through it, offering us a side of themselves we rarely see.

Since the film was aired on PBS’ Great Performances last year, the DVD now includes extras: a brief documentary on Robbins and his company Ballets: USA (which premiered Opus Jazz), plus interviews with Suozzi and Bar and some of the dancers.

Opus Jazz
the film has won acclaim in six continents. Watching the excellent dancers, the legendary choreography, and the brilliant filming choices, you realize that you’re having a better time than if you were seeing the ballet in a theater. —Wendy Perron




Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer

By Liz Lerman

Wesleyan University Press, 2011

308 pages. Illustrated. $29.95.

Liz Lerman manages a rare feat in the American dance scene: She’s become a national figure, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she’s not based in New York City.

Working outside Washington, DC, Lerman has spent 35 years innovating. She built a multigenerational dance troupe that both speaks and moves. She collaborated with politicians, philosophers, scientists, and activists, and won a clutch of awards, including the MacArthur “genius” grant. Now, having handed over the reins of her company to the next generation, she collects decades of wisdom into a book as much about human relationships as about dance.

Lerman wants to live in a “non-hierarchical” world; the professional dance field, alas, is a hard place to do that. But she made it work, in part by choosing to base herself near the national’s capital and by defining her field as one committed to engaging community members at every level. She calls her strategy “spectrum thinking.” Over her long career it has enabled her to work in senior centers and physics labs, with policy wonks and genetic engineers. Some members of her ensemble are still dancing into their 70s.

She writes about her childhood, her teachers, her family, the survival jobs that shaped her process. She rallied community support to make dances in a New Hampshire shipyard threatened with closure. She mapped the state of Israel on her body. Throughout her career her work has had a voice, literally; the strongest pieces are scripted as well as choreographed.

“In my world,” she tells us, “form and content, process and product, nurture and rigor, individual vision and collective creation…all form delightful spectrums that I get to dance along.” The “horizontal” of her title refers to that spectrum, which she prefers to the top-down organization of most social structures.

She believes in art as an agent of change. Every young dancer would do well to share Lerman’s thinking here, and every presenter can learn from her stories. Teachers should read and assign her book to fledgling choreographers. She has moved away from dancing as the “mute form” she studied for years, and toward an approach that invites spectators in, helping them understand their experience rather than making them feel stupid.

I do wish the rigor she requires onstage had extended to her work on the page; the sort of errors that result from relying too much on spell-check, rather than on a careful proofreader, abound. Names are spelled different ways on facing pages. Dances and musical groups are misidentified. 

Lerman’s interested in the dialogue between intellect and impulse, and in offering everybody a place at the table—which she did, literally, in her recent work A Matter of Origins. Autobiography, philosophy, strategic manual, Hiking the Horizontal limns the process of making dance “accessible.” —Elizabeth Zimmer


“You never know, in life, where information comes from that’s going to take you down a particular path.” Those are words for a dancer to live by, although Wayne McGregor was referring to the fact that his first introduction to William Forsythe’s work was by a 70-year-old woman whom he met while putting on tea dances for seniors. For more gems from McGregor, Crystal Pite, and others, check out Canada’s National Arts Centre free podcasts. Hosted by the Centre’s dance producer, Cathy Levy, the series invites artists, most of whom have recently shown their work at the NAC, to debrief about matters onstage and off, from creative endeavors to family and technology. The monthly podcasts are just a few clicks away on the NAC’s website and on iTunes. —Stav Ziv

iPhone/iPad apps

Setting a piece of choreography on dancers, but haven’t had time to cut the music yet? Rehearsing the difficult middle section of a variation and tired of having to find 1:54 again and again? The Relevé app solves these issues. On a simple, clean interface, the user places one or multiple markers on the music’s progress bar. You can then choose to go right to the part of the score that begins with the marker, type choreographic notes linked to that part of the music, and/or choose to skip over what’s between two markers. The app has onscreen instructions that help new users get acclimated. You can access any tune on your device. —Kina Poon