New York City and its Converse-loving youth is the muse of NY Export: Opus Jazz, the cinematic adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s “ballet in sneakers” of the same name, which was broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show and toured around the world in the late ‘50s. As in the Robbins-directed West Side Story, the dance is taken to the streets, except here Robert Prince’s vibrant jazz score takes away any need for intelligible speech or traditional language. The closest to dialogue is the game of call and response engaged by the young dancers’ limbs and the occasional finger-snapping. It feels like an epic music video by Canadian singer Feist directed by Tsai Ming-liang.
Filmmakers Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes have stripped any hope for conventional narrative to the bareness of generically clothed bodies moving in empty space. Instead of cutting up the image in a series of close-ups, they’d rather move the camera about as though it were a viewer immune to gravity drawing closer and further from the action, trying out different vantage points and discovering the possibilities of a fluid mise-en-scène.
Short snapshots of the dancers’ everyday being in the city provide a subtle way to situate the dance numbers in some kind of framework, which embraces the notion of dancers as characters with histories, more than just beautifully coordinated fleshly parts. Before the break into dance, we see a guy playing an arcade game while a girl tries to get his attention, a girl hanging her laundry in a balcony and shouting at someone downstairs, another girl riding in a cab without ever checking her cellphone, another one staring absentmindedly out the window of a subway car headed to Manhattan.
Especially beautiful is the dance piece with a man and a woman performing the short-lived stages of a love story in the middle of a train track (waiting for the train wreck?) right before sundown—from the irrational urgency of the beginning to the abandonment-tinged rupture. The scene works as a reminder, at once gentle and brutal, that even the most incredible mastering of a dancer’s limbs can never escape the body’s absolute dependence on a healthy psyche.