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Opinions of Export Jazz

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What do folks think of this?

Jerome Robbins’ New York Export Jazz has been a controversial among my friends. And I myself have also been of two minds.

As background, having seen it a few times now, the general theater seems to like it quite a bit. It seems to hold the attention of the theater (which is something you can perceive when you are there, oddly enough) and it provokes warm applause.

On the other hand, the reaction among the Ballet Alert people, myself, family and friends has been more mixed. The negative view, when expressed, has been that the piece appears “dated”, or “boring,” and that it’s a production to be avoided. One regular goes home early or out for coffee whenever he can avoid seeing it again (I’ve done this myself once); another opined that he hoped never to “sit through that again.” Going over some of my old emails, I find I’ve myself described it as the “Micky Mouse Club on Amphetamines”, or “What Happens When You Give Speed to Annette Funaciello” and/or as “Limp Wristed Horsing Around, a Sort of Gay West Side Story.”

Last night, though, viewing number 5 – I think I finally got it. I enjoyed it again, even more than the first time I saw it, when I initially liked it as well.

What made the difference was my perception that what is difficult about the work is precisely that it is a snapshot of a a particular moment (which I did experience but when very young) and of a generation of which I was not a part.

Export Jazz is not West Side Story. It’s five to ten years earlier, in a different social milieu (Levittown slumming let’s say) and portrays a different culture. The Baby Boomers are not whom this is about. Rather, it’s a picture of the teenage and early twenty years of a generation old enough to remember the War, but too young to have fought in it. It’s Bill Haley and the Comets meets Maynard G. Krebs.

Consider 1958, the year it was made: Segregation and the KKK in the South but Brown vs. Board of Education just decided. On Television (then a new medium): The Micky Mouse Club, Annette Funaciello, Davy Crockett on Walt Disney; Richard Rogers’ Victory at Sea; the Doby Gillis show; My Little Margie, Andy’s Gang. In popular literature, the first Ian Fleming novels. In the news, the nuclear arms race, the missile race, the 100 Kiloton Hydrogen Bomb, primary school kids (me) climbing under their desks at school for air raid drills, reading the Weekly Reader which taught us how to identify the profiles of Russian aircraft, then eat your milk and cookies. In “Jazz,” it was a time when the remnants of the jitterbug and the big band era met Tito Puente and Miles Davis. Promised a “Consumer Paradise,” models of Nike Missiles came in the boxes of Cheerios my family ate.

It was an incredibly inconsistent and contradictory and strange period of which Robbins has provided us with a remarkable dance embodiment.

The music is a fair pastiche of the moment: the score ranges from early Pink Panther, to decadent jitterbug, from sad and elegant Trumpet melody (a la Clifford Harris), to conga drum rhythms with saxophone riffs, finally also to cha-cha-cha. The décor is also of the moment.

The movement idiom is also uniquely Robbins, you won’t find it anywhere else, even within Robbins’ work: it’s part conscious bravado, whistling to silence the Nuclear wind, as it were, a determined innocence with all that hip thrusting; it’s part Micky Mouse Club, put both hands in front, bend over and strut around the stage; it’s part “beat” generation, pre-out-of-the-closet limp wrist-ism (Robbins would have known something about that); with the occasional classical dance lift interpolated.

The characterizations are similarly surface innocence with something else underneath: boys and girls with the determined white bread optimism of the time, innocent and slightly silly, a pose which doesn’t allow for tragedy even or much emotional weight and that will not wear well – part sock-hop flight from realityh, part the adoption of a youth culture style as an identity thing (partly consumer) – As I said, milk and chocolate cake after Nuclear air raid drills at school. Everybody’s clean cut, in sneakers, but the interracial pas de deux (probably new but a stroke of dramatic inspiration in J P Froehlich’s staging to take advantage of his cast) and the girl thrown off the roof allow a moment’s glimpse under the facade.

I note that, if I read this correctly, that might be why I like some of the performers in this better than the others. Generally, Ellen Bar, Gina Pascoguin, Rachel R., and Sarah Ricard among girls; and Sean Suozzi, Andy Veyette and Jon Stafford among the boys get it best. They are a little dark under the clean cut-ness. While Ashley Laracey, Tiler Peck, Amar Ramassar and Antonio Carmena get it worse – they smile too much, horse around too much, don’t seem to get any weight underneath.

I am anyway, happy they revived this. It’s an important work, an important piece of dance. Confusing, unfamiliar, entertaining, and graceful, and the better for being all four things.

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Moderator's Note: Michael originally posted this in the NYCB forum. I moved it, because the ballet is in the repertories of the Joffrey and ABT. I hope people who have seen any of these productions -- will add their thoughts.

Thanks to Michael, and thanks in advance to subsequent posters.

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First time I saw Jerome Robbins’ New York Export Jazz with it's current casting, I walked away thinking this is, at best, out takes from Interplay (debut'd 1952). After reading Michael's review above, perhaps I'll give it a second try... if only to see Gina Pazcoguin in it again. She gives this work life!

>In “Jazz,” it was a time when the remnants of the jitterbug and the big band era

>met Tito Puente and Miles Davis. Promised a “Consumer Paradise,” models of

>Nike Missiles came in the boxes of Cheerios my family ate.

Bravo! What a sentence!! And what a fine review!!! Thank you, indeed.

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One of the factors I think is important in considering this ballet is that it was Robbins' own company (Ballets U.S.A.)-- he had total artistic control -- and that it was created in a laboratory-like environment, with a European festival as the anticipated venue. He also got to hand-pick all the dancers (and he worked with many of them repeatedly over the years). In the Broadway production, in 1961 I see the names Kay Mazzo and barbara Milberg, as well as Susan Borree (Yvonne's mother? she was a dancer). The link is: (http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=2881)

Watching it really put me back in time, as Michael said, to the late 50's. That movement style was so distinct. I think his best use of that idiom was in INTERPLAY, where the dancers come way downstage so that they are all in silhouette, and really shake it!

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Export Jazz is not West Side Story.  It’s five to ten years earlier, in a different social milieu (Levittown slumming let’s say) and portrays a different culture.  The Baby Boomers are not whom this is about.  Rather, it’s a picture of the teenage and early twenty years of a generation old enough to remember the War, but too young to have fought in it.

I don't see them that way. I think they are -- if not quite exact counterparts -- close cousins to the kids in West Side Story. I think the OpJazz folks are urban and exact contemporaries of the WSS, which premiered on Broadway in 1958.

I saw this ballet as it was danced in the early 80s by ABT (staging credited to Wilma Curley and Tom Abbott), but I don't remember the edge that NYCB brings to it (staging credited to Eddie Verso). The current production does evoke with an almost spooky prescience, the turmoil that would rise to the surface in the following decade. But first we had to go through Camelot (and later name the three years "Camelot), the Hula Hoop craze, and rock's British Invasion which carried in its wake long hair on boys and miniskirts on girls.

OpJazz does more than imply a generalized adolescent disaffection and (mostly) suppressed rage. If the generation that followed indulged more freely in mood-altering chemicals, the state of mind of their elder sisters and brothers as shown here goes a long way in explaining why.

It’s Bill Haley and the Comets meets Maynard G. Krebs.
Maybe even a bit more defiant than Haley and more kooky than Krebs.
The movement idiom is also uniquely Robbins, you won’t find it anywhere else, even within Robbins’ work:    pre-out-of-the-closet limp wrist-ism (Robbins would have known something about that);
I think the bent wrists held in front of the chest (that is what you refer to, yes?) was part of the day's jazz idiom. Doesn't Gene Kelly affect it in American in Paris? In both pre-Stonewall contexts, I wonder if you're reading more into it than intended. Or perhaps not.

You also mention the characters' "white bread optimism," Michael. That may be it, but is Robbins possibly suggesting a state of (anachronistic term here) denial? Or maybe it's the same thing.

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Well the thing I find weird about it as seen at NYCB -- is precisely that I find it so determinedly innocent. I had to think hard to find something dark underneath, except for the pas de deux between Hall and Rutherford. Even the bit with the girl on the roof seemed a pose, harmless -- though she's tossed off the stage. Did it play that way at the Joffrey and ABT? Do other people see it that way at City Ballet or is it just me.

Interesting Carley, the West Side Story chronology. If cousins, distant distant distant ones. West Side Story has tragedy, drama. I find very little of that here. Instead a kind of determined suburban white bread optimism that seems a pose, wilfull denial if you want to read in irony. But I feel no irony in these performances really. It's white bread. It feels like the suburbs to West Side Story's city. As I said, very much a portrait of its time, but the time it displays is in some way dissociative.

I still feel confused by this ballet. Which is why it took so many damn words to surround it.

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The pas de deux has always been a black-white duet. In the context of the times, where up North one could still find whites-only, blacks-only drinking fountains in public parks, it was a powerful, even radical statement. The social context had to affect his choreographic choices: Mr. Robbins was a liberal (before that word had inexplicably been transformed into a four-letter one) and had a very urgent message to convey. When I have this ballet in a few days I promise to stay, and thank Michael for supplying context for viewing it.

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Deborah Jowitt, in her biography of Robbins, mentions that he set the ballet on the Alvin Ailey company in 1993. There is an in-house video of Robbins coaching the dancers.

Did Ailey ever perform it in public? Given Michael's reference to "suburban white bread optimism," the fit seems rather intresting, and I wonder how the ballet would look on a decided different kind of company.

P.S. I lived in an all-white suburb during that period. Very genteel. Except for the time someone burned down a house because there was a rumor that it had been sold to a black family. (Rumor turned out to be false. There were, as far as I can remember, no responses from the village's officials.)

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Did Ailey ever perform it in public? 

Yes. Anna Kisselgoff reviewed it in The Times, December 20, 1993:

What Mr. Robbins did so brilliantly was to capture the mood of urban America in the late 1950's. Gang warfare, alienated youth: these phrases may not seem new today but Mr. Robbins envisaged them in startling images and he did so by incorporating the symbolic rhythms of vernacular dance into the formal structures of ballet. No one has been able to distill the American passing mood as sharply as he has done in so many of his works.

. . .

Until now, Mr. Robbins has allowed the work to be performed only by ballet companies: the Harkness Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theater.

Of the Ailey dancers:

Although the Ailey dancers take ballet class, they are members of a modern-dance troupe. If anything they approach the choreography here too carefully and too reverently. They strive for the precision that Mr. Robbins demands but do not quite achieve the freedom that experienced ballet dancers would find more easily, especially in the partnered lifts.
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Well, all I can say is that if that is what they are looking for -- the angry urban mood of modern America, gang warfare, alienated youth ... NYCB is NOT getting that out of this production right now. I get the opposite out of the State Theater production. It's hard to see Tiler Peck, Stephanie Zungre, and Antonio Carmena as anything but grinning, goofy and happy as hell in this. The Mickey Mouse Club. That's exactly what I can't quite get to the bottom of.

But why believe Anna Kisselgoff that this was Robbins' intent? How does she know that?

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Michael, the NY Export: Op. Jazz NYCB performed tonight and featured the teens from Levittown you cite in your opening post. Some very fine dancing, but not the Op. Jazz I was seeing last season. It might have been the one you were seeing.

Tonight, thanks to a lady with a ticket surplus who found me on line at the box office, I sat in the Orchestra, a matter of rows behind your habital zone, but nearer than my usual vantage point in the upper ring/s. Perhaps that makes a difference?

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My problem with "N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz" (besides its cluttered title) is that I can't tell who these young people are. They are not the clean-cut romantics of "Interplay," the clever neurotics of "Moves," or the ethnic gang members and lovers of "West Side Story." Despite Michael's valiant attempts at placing them in context, I am unconvinced that they're from Levittown. The thing that bothers me most about the ballet as currently performed (I was there again last night) is the unclear, unserious depiction of the gang rape and subsequent throw from the roof. They barely make a dent in the ballet, but an attentive audience member can't help but go "Huh?"

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