photos by Yaniv Schulman
Last week, I had the privilege of visiting the set of Opus Jazz: The Film, which recently resumed and completed filming after shooting the third section, “Passage for Two”, on the High Line about two years ago. The new film version of Jerome Robbins’ 1958 ballet is scheduled to debut on PBS’s Great Performances/Dance in America series in the spring of 2010 (for updates, visit the film’s website). For the past several weeks, the cast and crew worked at various locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, including McCarren Park Pool and a school gymnasium in Carroll Gardens, and wrapped up filming in a beautiful 1929 Loews movie theater in Jersey City, where I had the opportunity to observe everyone in action.
As it turns out, the action involves a lot of waiting. Just as I arrived in mid-afternoon, a crew member announced that the sixteen dancers could take five, so they scurried off the stage and into the seats of the theater to check voicemails and text messages, nap, stretch, and re-caffeinate (they had been in the theater since 8 AM). The five minute break turned into a half hour delay as the crew worked on camera angle adjustments – the film is being shot from one camera – and consulted with Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi (the film’s creators and executive producers), but the downtime gave me an opportunity to chat with some of the dancers, all of whom are members of New York City Ballet.
Cast members Amanda Hankes, Georgina Pazcoguin, Adam Hendrickson, Rebecca Krohn, Tiler Peck, and Andrew Veyette
I quickly learned from Craig Hall, an NYCB soloist, that the greatest challenge of filming was exactly what we were doing at that moment: waiting. The go-stop-go nature of shooting was an abrupt change from performing on stage, where the show must go on no matter what happens. Hall added, “The choreography is ingrained in our bodies and the dancers know what the ballet looks like”, but the film version is still a mystery. Between filming out of chronological order and the endless process of editing, the dancers have no idea what to expect. Other dancers agreed that filming doesn’t offer the instant gratification that comes with live performances, where the dancers are in control of the outcome, but Hall proudly stated, “I’m honored to be a part of this, and we’re all really lucky to have such a unique collaboration between dancers and the filmmakers.”
While sipping coffee, Adam Hendrickson added that the cast and crew have become a big, loving family, especially bonding during overnight shoots in a dirty warehouse (On his informative and entertaining blog about the filming process, he wrote, “To call it hazardous would be the understatement of the decade. It will be the craziest place ever danced in.”). He explained, “We’re normally sheltered at NYCB, but here we’ve had the chance to meet new people, watch them work, and be a part of it.” Aside from Sunday rehearsals in the studio and some guidance from Jean-Pierre Frohlich, an NYCB ballet master and member of the Robbins Rights Trust advisory committee, the film project is entirely separate from the company and the dancers used their summer vacation time for filming (they returned to their regular NYCB work schedules this week). Hendrickson admitted that it’s nice to feel distanced from the company, because when working with film directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes, “You want to do the ballet a certain way for them that might not be the same way you do it on stage at NYCB. The choreography hasn’t changed, but the vision is different.”
When the crew announced that they were ready to start again, the dancers headed toward the stage, all laughing and in good spirits in spite of the long hours and choppy schedule. As soon as the camera was rolling and the jazzy rhythms of Robert Prince’s score were audible, the dancers’ youthful energy, angst, and rebellious spirit – all at the heart of the ballet – were palpable. As an ensemble, their dancing reflected the description that appeared in the program when the ballet first premiered in June 1958:
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, just as each era’s dance has significantly reflected the character of our changing world and a manner of dealing with it. N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz is a formal, abstract ballet based on the kinds of movements, complexities of rhythms, expressions of relationships, and qualities of atmospheres found in today’s dance.
Standing breathless on the stage of Loews after a full shoot of the final section, the dancers certainly embodied the spirit of the ballet, but Opus Jazz: The Film is not just a restaging of Jerome Robbins’ piece. It’s a reinvention – one that preserves the choreography and music while offering new costumes, a new backdrop, and a new medium that can reach a much broader audience than a theater can. The film wouldn’t exist without Robbins’ ballet, but the creative team is doing much more than simply transferring the steps to film. By showing respect to their predecessors while building on this timeless ballet with their own ideas and vision, the producers, directors, cast, and crew are making N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz their own and offering a unique contribution to dance and film.
All photos by Yaniv Schulman