Adapting ballet to the film medium is a mostly thankless task, which may explain the conspicuously low number of ballet-related movies. Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes deserve credit for trying to make a film out of Jerome Robbins’ 1958 dance classic “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz,” but the resulting work is fairly dismal.
Joost and Lipes make the major mistake of staging the dance numbers across New York City locations in a manner that is very similar to the 1973 film version of the musical “Godspell.” It fails because the inherent abstract theatricality of the original concept does not survive the transplant to the urban reality. Unlike Robbins’ brilliant opening sequence of “West Side Story,” which shrewdly used the Hell’s Kitchen streets to enhance its gritty inner city story, this film puts the dancers in weird settings that have little to do with their numbers. For the most part, it looks as if the cast and crew sneaked into public spaces when no one was looking and ran amok while the cameras were rolling.
The dancers come from the New York City Ballet, but none of them seem very enthused while they twirl, twitch, finger-snap and shimmy about. Perhaps to hide their obvious indifference, Joost and Lipes often keeps their camera at great distances from the dancers – including clumsy overhead shots reminiscent of the old Busby Berkeley films. But when the camera zooms in for close-ups, it is obvious that the dancers are too mature to portray the spirited youths that Robbins originally sought to celebrate.
It also doesn’t help that Robbins’ ballet, which seemed fresh and kinetic in 1958, is badly dated today. The choreography echoes the movements of his landmark staging of “West Side Story” – small groups of dancers that crouch, snap their fingers and move in slithering unison – which was jolting for its time but looks quaint today. Also dating the endeavor is Robert Prince’s jazz score, which clearly pegs the piece into a very specific (and distant) era. Clearly, the work was long past its shelf date before Joost and Lipes showed up.