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 fellow City Ballet dancer Sean Suozzi she conceived and produced the film, which was co-directed by Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost, who is also a GS student currently on leave.
“The themes of the ballet—about life in New York, about American youth—were still so relevant,” Ellen 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.”
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.
On its initial world tour, NY Export: Opus Jazz was presented as a representative of not only New York, but American culture more broadly. Today, the film continues that legacy as it begins its own journey through the festival circuit, with upcoming screenings in Sarasota, Atlanta, and Boston.
“Ballet was a European import, but choreographers like Robbins and Balanchine took that import and made it their own,” Ellen 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 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.”
More info about NYC Export: Opus Jazz:
Opus Jazz website
PBS Great Performances website; includes excerpts from the film and information on showtimes
New York Times review and article exploring the project’s origins
Ellen Bar discussing the project on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC
Essay by Ellen Bar in the Columbia Observer on the importance of the ballet master in dance (.pdf)