In 1958 Jerome Robbins took some choreography that hadn’t quite worked for his most recent project, West Side Story, and created another portrait of teenage urban life—NY Export: Opus Jazz, a “ballet in sneakers.” Paired with a jazz score by Robert Prince, it was a huge hit, with a well-received world tour and three performances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Yet in the ensuing five decades the ballet has been rarely performed and largely overlooked. Now, however, NY Export: Opus Jazz is undergoing a major resurgence, thanks in large part to Ellen Bar.
Ellen, a soloist in the New York City Ballet and a student at the School of General Studies, is one of the producers and stars of a new film adaptation of NY Export: Opus Jazz featuring City Ballet dancers. Along with her friend and fellow City Ballet dancer Sean Suozzi she conceived and produced the film, which was directed by Henry Joost (Catfish), who is also a GS student currently on leave, and Jody Lee Lipes (Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same), who also served as cinematographer and scripted the dramatic interludes between dances.
NY Export: Opus Jazz premiered at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it won the “Emerging Visions” audience award. The film was also broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances and has earned rave reviews from a number of publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Vanity Fair.
Such success would have been difficult to imagine in 2005, when Ellen looked at the City Ballet schedule and saw the listing for the revival of “a lost Jerome Robbins ballet,” as she later recalled. After dancing in the revival, Suozzi came to her with the idea of adapting it for film.
“We had both been in the company for a couple years and were looking for a project to do. We’d done little side things and met other creative people, and were inspired to do something larger. We really responded to the ballet, and the fact that it’s in sneakers made it seem like it could leave the stage and work on film. Some of the pieces in Opus Jazz are ideas Robbins didn’t get to use in West Side Story, and obviously that film works so well in interweaving dance and New York City.”
In addition to the technical aspects conducive to a cinematic treatment, the ballet’s subject matter held a particular resonance for Ellen and Sean.
“The themes of the ballet—about life in New York, about American youth—were still so relevant,” she says. “We felt a connection to the characters, and it reminded us of how much more the generations have in common than they think. All art forms and artists are building on what came before them, and there is something wonderful in drawing those connections and not trying to run away from that.”
Such connections abound in NY Export: Opus Jazz, which uses elements like wardrobe and location to present an experience of being young that is both thoroughly contemporary and redolent of the 1950s youth culture that originally inspired the ballet. At the same time, however, the youthful spirit that suffuses the ballet and, in turn, the film—and which is further augmented by the fact that the cast and the crew are all in their twenties—points to something more timeless and universal.
“Even as the characters want to rebel against something, they want to belong to something, and that something is their group, their clique,” Ellen says. “They’re trying to break away from their families only to create a new family of their own choosing. I think everyone experiences that in their late teens and early twenties, so the choreography is really reflecting a human experience.”
Although NY Export: Opus Jazz seemed uniquely suited for cinematic treatment, the actual filmmaking process was anything but simple. As with most independent productions, financing was a problem, and accordingly filming was sporadic; “Passage for Two,” the ballet’s fourth movement, was filmed two years before the rest of the film. After filling out countless grant applications to no avail, Ellen and Sean were eventually able to secure enough to complete the film, thanks to the generosity of private donors and the Jerome Robbins Foundation.
However, as co-director Jody Lee Lipes has pointed out, the downtime was, in part, serendipitous, since it gave the filmmakers time to develop a comprehensive strategy.
“Sean worked closely with the directors Jody and Henry to prepare for filming each movement,” Ellen says. “Jody had the idea to shoot each movement in a different camera-style—crane, steadicam, handheld, dolly, static—to highlight how different each movement is and to give them all a different feel.
“Jody and Henry would come to the dancers' rehearsals, and would use City Ballet performance footage, and build shotlists from there. Then Sean would go over it with them and make changes based on his ideas from the dancers' perspective.
“It really required both perspectives to make it effective cinematically as well as effective as far as communicating the dance. I think that's why people respond to it well, because it's not lazy on either front.”
“Dance was always just a part of our life,” Ellen says. Her mother, a former dancer in Russia, now teaches dance in upstate New York, where Ellen grew up. She commuted back and forth to New York City for classes at the School of American Ballet until age 14, when she moved into the school’s dorms. At 16 she was accepted to the New York City Ballet.
While dancing she completed an associate’s degree through a distance-learning program at another university, but wanted a different experience for her bachelor’s degree. After hearing about GS from another dancer, she did some research about the school and decided to apply.
“I wanted a real experience,” she said. “When you’re older and paying for it yourself, it’s totally different from when you’re 18 and going to college because everyone else is going.
“For me it was about the process just as much as the degree. I didn’t just want a piece of paper, or to feel like I was sectioned off—I wanted to be challenged in an academic environment with people who were really passionate about what they’re studying.”
She enrolled at GS shortly after being promoted to soloist with City Ballet, which freed up her schedule enough for her to take two classes a semester. While her career and her studies are largely two separate spheres, she quickly points to moments of intersection.
“I was taking Art Hum and studying the Parthenon and Greek friezes at the same time we were debuting Jerome Robbins’ Antique Epigraphs, which is based on statues of Greek and Egyptian goddesses. In essence, it explores the question, ‘If those figures could dance, what would they do? ’
“While I was learning all about the art and architecture I was rehearsing and performing the piece; each thing was informing and enriching the other, which was an interesting experience.”
In 2007 a neck injury sidelined her, both professionally and academically. “I’d had such a good experience at Columbia that I didn’t want to associate it with being injured,” she says. And then NY Export: Opus Jazz began to take off and make increasing demands upon her time. She took a leave of absence and returned this semester; however, her work with NY Export: Opus Jazz is not yet done.
On its 1958 world tour, which was sponsored by the State Department and produced by Robbins’ Ballets U.S.A. company, NY Export: Opus Jazz was presented as a representative of not only New York, but American culture more broadly. Now, as the film begins its own tour through the festival circuit, with upcoming screenings in Sarasota, Atlanta, and Boston, Ellen will be striving to continue that legacy of cultural exchange.
“Ballet was a European import, but choreographers like Robbins and Balanchine took that import and made it their own,” she says. “They made ballets about American subjects with American energy, and exported it back to the old world. American culture is pervasive around the world now, but people don’t think of it as ‘high art’ as much as popular art; I think our film version of NY Export can be an ambassador to the world in that way—just look on the screen and see those New York City Ballet dancers, and you realize that not only are they sexy and cool, but they’re classically trained artists and powerful athletes. I think it could be useful to remind the world that we’re not just putting out Jersey Shore over here.”