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Dance

Filming Robbins in the City He Loved

Published: January 6, 2008

ARIEL SCHULMAN is making a film about sex, violence, racism and teenage angst. But the film is also a ballet, which to some sounds much more intimidating.

He put the public attitude he is working against this way: “‘Ballet’s not for me. I don’t have silver hair. I don’t have $80.’”

Mr. Schulman is a producer and art director of “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz,” the film of a ballet about urban youth choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1958. It is one of the few films of Robbins’s work since “West Side Story” was released in 1961 that does not simply document a stage performance by planting a camera in the back of a theater. Instead it is being shot on location in the streets of New York, the city that inspired it.

Two of his producing partners, and the driving force behind the project, are Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, New York City Ballet soloists who decided to put the piece on film after performing in it in 2005 at the New York State Theater. “We thought it would be beautiful,” Mr. Suozzi said, “and that it would work.”

Each of the ballet’s five movements is being shot using a different camera technique — ranging from hand-held to swooping crane — and in a different location. “Passage for Two,” the only movement finished so far, was filmed this summer on the High Line, the stretch of elevated train tracks in Chelsea.

“Opus Jazz” is the first film project approved by the City of New York for the High Line since it fell out of use in 1980 and is likely to be the last until it opens as a park next fall. The only other production known to have been filmed on the tracks was a music video for a band called the Art of Noise, said Katie Lorah, media manager for Friends of the High Line, an advocacy group for the line’s preservation and use. Shot sometime in the 1980s, it featured three men and a punk-rock child, complete with heavy eye makeup and a mullet, destroying musical instruments.

The mood of “Passage for Two” is quite different. A young man and woman, the City Ballet soloists Craig Hall and Rachel Rutherford, examine each other slowly, then come together on the rusty tracks. They dance, almost as if they are tied to each other, as a hazy yellow sun sets behind them.

“You don’t look at it and say, ‘Why are they dancing up there?’ ” Mr. Suozzi said. “This choreography lends itself to these locations. It looks natural.”

It also looks deceptively little like ballet. Amanda Vaill, author of “Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins” (Broadway Books, 2006), said in an interview that the piece was “essentially a jazz ballet with a classical vocabulary,” or codified ballet movements deployed with a little funk. “He’s turned it into something that looks like jazz dance,” she said, “but it’s never jazz dance.”

Robbins, who died in 1998 at 79, was a versatile choreographer but also an extreme perfectionist.

Jody Lee Lipes, cinematographer and a co-director of “Opus Jazz” with Henry Joost, said he felt a responsibility to make a movie that would not only satisfy Robbins aficionados but also have been acceptable to the choreographer himself. “As a filmmaker it’s really interesting to try to reproduce something for someone who’s so hard to please,” Mr. Lipes said.

Jean-Pierre Frohlich, a ballet master at City Ballet and a member of the Robbins Rights Trust advisory committee, was on set for the entire shoot of “Passage for Two” to see that the choreography was done correctly. “As a committee member, your role is to protect his work, but at the same time they have to have life,” he said. “Balanchine said many years ago, things have to move on, otherwise it becomes like a museum piece and it becomes dated.”

Ms. Bar recalled, “When we started telling people about this, they thought it would be me and Sean and a camcorder.” Now they are working toward a $1 million budget — though fund-raising still has a way to go — and the movie is attracting attention. City Ballet screened “Passage for Two” at its winter-season gala in November. It won an award in the Netherlands for adapting dance from stage to screen, and it will be featured in “Ballet in Sneakers,” a presentation of the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series on Jan. 20 and 21.

But the filmmakers hope it will attract an entirely different group as well. “People grow up seeing film and TV and the Internet,” Ms. Bar said. “Where’s the next audience going to come from if it isn’t part of a family’s tradition to go to the ballet?”

“’Opus Jazz,’” she points out, “could be on someone’s iPhone.”

They may already have at least one convert. “I was just blown away,” said Robert Hammond, a founder of Friends of the High Line in 1999 and now its executive director. “And this is from someone who would really rather not see ballet at all. It made me, for the first time, have an interest in going.”

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