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DVD Review: NY Export: Opus Jazz

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NY Export: Opus Jazz proudly announces itself as the first film conceived, created, produced and danced by the New York City Ballet. But the film’s directors have some creative cachet as well. Co-directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes came fresh from very different projects: Joost was part of the team that brought you the controversial Catfish (his co-director and co-star of that film, Ariel Schuman, is production designer here), and Lipes made the fascinating documentary Good Times Will Never be the Same, about controversial artist Brock Enright. Whatever you think of those films, Opus Jazz may not be what you expect.

Jane Jacobs wrote of the city as an “intricate ballet, in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.” The work of choreographer Jerome Robbins could be seen as a stylish embodiment of that romantic ideal. Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz was envisioned as a companion piece to his work in West Side Story, and the paralells are clear in the kind of gangland tension and young sexuality, lines both flowing and staccato.

Lipes’ Good Times proved the cinematographer-turned director’s gift for the casual detail, carefully composed but still intimate and organic. His camerawork throughout is as impressive as you’d expect from the Brock Enright film, expansive or contemplative when needed, with a few stagelight lens flares thrown in for a sparing touch of the spotlight. The wide-angle lens used for most of the dance sequences give the performers room to breathe, and don’t make the mistake that dance films sometimes do of cutting away too much from the performers bodies. The aspect ratio is so wide that the film would be wonderful to see on a big movie screen.

The film was shot in various locations in New York, from old-school diners to the McCarren Park Pool to a stretch of the High Line before it was cleared, when it was more of a wild park than the manicured lawn it is now. The music by Robert Prince is full of youthful, brassy outbursts, and the young performers of the New York City Ballet are a joy to watch. Now if somebody can do this with Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, perhaps live in an abandoned warehouse, I promise full Stendahl Syndrome overload.

A featurette included with the DVD traces the history of this “ballet in sneakers” from its performance on the Ed Sullivan Show to its revival for a modern audience. If you love dance, jazz, and New York – or even if you only love two of the three – this is a must-see. And if you’re anywhere near a screening – the film is still making its way through the festival circuit – I envy you. 

About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.