Returning to Toronto following two single screenings in 2010 (one at the Toronto Indie Film Festival and another as a part of the ReFocus series), this time from Shorts That Are Not Pants programmer James McNally, NY Export: Opus Jazz updates Jerome Robbins’ underperformed 1958 “ballet in sneakers” as a fleet footed and simply stunning to look at cinematic experience. This remounting brings the production out of the theatre (save for one sequence that takes place on a stage) with the help of the New York City Ballet, who imbue the production with new, vibrant life.
The wordless, just a shade under an hour in length production comes mounted this time courtesy of director/writer Jody Lee Lipes and co-director Henry Joost. If those names sound familiar, it’s because both have gone on to considerable acclaim. Lipes famously shot the gorgeous looking Martha Marcy May Marlene and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. Joost was one of the co-directors of Catfish and the last two Paranormal Activity films. Together, their imaginative ideas and wonderfully realized cinematography gives the dance numbers a little extra spring to go along with the appropriate finger snapping swagger. It’s probably a film that no one would expect from either man’s filmography, but they are directing some of the most ambitious and fluid looking, big screen worthy dance sequences imaginable.
A tale of young people reclaiming their city one dance at a time, the dancers move between crumbling and sometimes uninspired bits of infrastructure to breath a new sense of life and purpose into the world. From empty lots that could easily double as grand amphitheatres in their hands to hospital white and sickly blue coloured high school gymnasiums, these dancers come together as a unified unit, not to rumble West Side Story-style with one another (although that musical’s influence is definitely felt here), but to rage against stagnation via a good, old fashioned stomping of the yard.
The choreography, as such is often light and sometimes purposefully silly, with full body shakes and hand jiving making cameo appearances in decidedly non-ballet fashion. But these transgressions against the form and formalism are always part of larger, more stunning numbers about the subtle undercutting of said formalism. It underlines that all great art – be it dance, opera, film, music, whatever – is all about taking what has worked for the establishment and making it one’s own. It’s wonderful to be original, but another thing entirely to tweak a given framework and ways one might deem sacrilegious.
Lipes and Joost direct the heck out of these dance numbers, moving fluidly and with as much grace and dexterity as their subjects. Cutting only when absolutely necessary to properly tell the story, Lipes and Joost transition effortlessly from dolly shots, to crane shots, to close-ups with great assurance. The film’s most moving, stand-out number: a pair of dancers ditch a noisy diner for a duet in an overgrown and unloved lot along the river, and atop a set of abandoned railway tracks to nowhere. With the setting sun in the background and a transition between camerawork on the ground and in the air above so subtle it almost goes unnoticed amid the entrancing dance, it’s pure passion and beauty. This sequence is reason alone to see the film, but there’s no shortage of similar moments throughout.
It all culminates in a loving montage set to lovely piano where the city has somehow reclaimed its own sense of beauty and rhythm. It’s heartwarming, but devoid of saccharine. It’s great to see this one on a big screen, and worth checking out upon its brief return engagement to the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this Thursday night at 9:00pm. It’s worth the special trip.