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Flash Review 1, 5-17: Opus Pocus
Robbins Ballet Exported Home After 47 Years

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2005 Gus Solomons jr
Photography Copyright 2005 Paul Kolnik

NEW YORK -- Jerome Robbins's "N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz," created in 1958 for his Ballets: U.S.A., had its New York City Ballet premiere 47 years later, on April 29, 2005. Officially, it's nearly old enough to be an antique, but original cast member Eddie Verso's restaging of the ballet reveals that it's indeed a treasure. Back in '58, its street-wise but relatively innocent young toughs presaged Robbins's subsequent masterpiece "West Side Story."
New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins's "N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz," with scenery by Ben Shahn, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, music by Robert Prince and costumes by Florence Klotz. Paul Kolnik photo copyright Paul Kolnik and courtesy New York City Ballet.

Opening the program on May 5, "Opus Jazz" swept onstage at the New York State Theater like a puff of fresh air. Against a background of TV antennas (scenery by artist Ben Shahn) eight couples in black tights and pastel sweatshirts with matching sneakers saunter onstage, snapping their fingers, and coalesce into a tight clump; they break out in a short Lindy Hop, and arrange themselves in parallel lines that gradually shift orientation as couples do-si-do between them. They draw into a tight circle and drop to the floor on their backs in a starburst formation. That's "Entrance: Group Dance," the first of five sections.

Robbins employed clear, simple staging and made effective use of contrast to create excitement. He appropriated both stage jazz and social dance conventions of the time and commented on them with wry understatement. In the late fifties, jazz dance was the rage, propagated by such teacher gurus as Luigi, Matt Mattox, Bob Hamilton, and others, who were influenced by Jack Cole's Eastern-flavored movement style: deep second-position plies, crouched walks, knee slides, and flared hands.

Like his contemporary Bob Fosse, Robbins understood that less is more: 32 finger-snapping hands or 16 pairs of arms rising overhead in unison create impact without adornment. He clumped dancers tightly together to make their bursting out into space seem more explosive. He articulated space brilliantly with splicing diagonals, close canons, and clever syncopation.

In "Statics," the second section, Georgina Pazcoguin and Seth Orza flirt face to face, rather than front to back as in the usual pas de deux configuration, where man repeatedly lifts woman. Then, Adam Hendrickson, Amar Ramasar, Sean Suozzi, and Andrew Veyette gang up for what looks like a gang rape, all in good fun -- in 1958 Political Correctness wasn't even a twinkle in anyone's eye.

Part three, "Improvisations," happens on a playground, where the cast engages in playful challenges and social games with a dance-at-the-gym feeling but without the menace of 'West Side''s Sharks and Jets. Here, Shahn's scenery depicts a handball court wall and chain link fencing.

"Passage for Two," the central, interracial duet, originally for John Jones and Wilma Curly, was similarly cast here with Craig Hall and Rachel Rutherford. Emotionally detached physical embraces reflect the controversial nature of racially mixed romance in the fifties, when "black people knew their places," before the civil rights movement of the sixties. The couple tries to maintain distance, despite their intense sexual attraction, and at the end, they split and go their lonely, separate ways. In this new millennium, racial mixing is less controversial -- if not, alas, extinct as an issue -- so today, the duet reads more like a one-night stand than a dangerously forbidden love affair.

For the finale, "Theme, Variations, and Fugue," the cast, now in white sweatshirts and sneakers, visualizes Robert Prince's brassy, rhythmic score. Backed by a Mondrian-esque tapestry of glowing panels in the colors the dancers wore in the opening section, the throbbing motion builds to a sizzling climax.

Maurice Kaplow conducted, Jennifer Tipton designed the lighting of the new production, and Florence Klotz, the costumes. The program closed with Balanchine's patriotic creampuff "Stars and Stripes," set to John Philip Sousa marches, and danced pertly; Ashley Bouder and Benjamin Millepied as Liberty Bell and El Capitan danced appropriately over the top in the "Fourth Campaign" pas de deux. Nestled in between was Peter Martins's new -- glacial -- "Ta la Gaisma" with its same opening night cast and Andrea Quinn at the baton.

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