Wednesday, April 28, 2010

NY Export: Opus Jazz

PBS Great Performances
Dance in America
"NY Export: Opus Jazz"-2010
original airdate-March 24, 2010

The relationship between dance and film has several layers and dimensions. First and most common, dance is usually filmed. Videographers generally record most work (in rehearsal or performance) for archival, press or company purposes. Second, with the rise of 'interdisciplinary' and 'new media' movements, film has a home in live performance as an additional element conveying the message of the choreography. Then there is the dance film - a separate entity where dancemaking and filmmaking purposefully fuse in the creation of a cohesive artpiece. For a successful dance film, there must be a two-way give and take where choreography adapts to film and film adapts to choreography. Most dance films fail to meet this criteria and the film portion takes over, resulting in a completely inaccessible and weird product. Some level of weirdness is okay, but can there be more to the choreography than one dancer sitting on a chair twirling her hair for an hour and a half? The post-moderns would counter by saying that this pedestrian, gestural movement is just as valid a dance choice as a pas de deux. Fine, but can we have a little balance? I don't mind experiencing deconstructed movement but, if a film is billed as a dance film, it would be nice to include some formal technique as well. I think that a true dance film is a rather elusive animal.

Enter NY Export: Opus Jazz, a new 2010 film version of Jerome Robbins' Ballet in Sneakers (1958). This may be the only real and actual dance film I have ever seen, where the choreography remained technically and authentically intact, the abstraction of filmmaking was captured through landscape and scenework and most important, Robbins' examination of youth was constant in both media (film and dance). The opening visuals of the film are a short journey through everyday youth activities: relaxing at the beach, playing video games, skateboarding, bicycling, riding the subway, doing laundry. Before any dance step enters the picture, the narrative of young urban life has been established. The context is there from the very beginning and holds true through the entire film. The first group dance sequence takes place in an outdoor space where circle dances and couple dances pervade. This provided a strong indication of both the social role of dance and the flirtation and romance behind it. Another open space, warehouse-style this time, housed a variation for the men where the movements embodied struggle, anger, abandon and freedom. The filmed locale provided a place where these feelings could be explored and the choreography itself - lunges with hands reaching out and quick pirouettes followed by abrupt falls to the floor - told of the internal emotions. In all of the segments, real jazz steps helped forward the story: rule-breaking parallel pirouettes, laid-back step-ball-changes, flirty hip isolations, sexy fan kicks, showy hitch kicks, and unrestrained axles and lay-outs. Robbins was able to bring this unique physical syllabus to life in a way that fed his narrative vision.

Not only was NY Export: Opus Jazz an excellent dance film, but also an example of solid jazz choreography. Jazz dance is in a precarious place right now; at a crossroads of sorts. Currently, jazz is abundant in dance studios, performance teams and on reality television. At the same time, it is not very successful in professional or semi-professional choreography. The dance genre itself is not to blame; jazz dance has an incredible movement vocabulary on which to build interesting and artistically challenging work. But the reality is that jazz dance, as used today, lacks artistic maturity and choreographic rigor. For jazz to participate and flourish in the repertory of professional companies, we must look beyond its adolescent performance team identity. Not every movement has to mean something, but it doesn't have to look like a dance studio recital either. Jerome Robbins' choreography shows that jazz has a important and valuable role alongside ballet, modern, and post-modern dance: the depth of this art form is there, it just isn't being adequately accessed right now.

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