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What Is a Classic?

Photo: Ballets-USA program cover in 1958 (from the collection of Mark Franko)

In its continuing celebration of the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins this past winter season, New York City Ballet has revived one more Robbins work, a piece dating back to 1958—New York Export: Opus Jazz.[1] An ensemble work for sixteen dancers with a jazz-inspired score by Robert Prince and sets by Ben Shahn, New York Export: Opus Jazz was first shown on a tour of Robbins’s Ballets U.S.A. in Europe and later had its New York City premiere in an all-Robbins Broadway season.[2]

This premiere was in itself an unusual event, on the heels of Robbins’s 1957 smash hit musical West Side Story. Blazoned by its title as intended for export rather than internal consumption, the title had a provocative ring for another reason as well. Opus is a term reserved for the classical musical work, whereas here it was a question of jazz. Robbins implied the African American contribution was integral to American concert dance. “The name of the company itself, ‘Ballets: U.S.A.,’” wrote Robbins, “was chosen, not in any way to represent all of the dance in the U.S.A, but to identify to Europeans clearly the source and home ground from which the dancers and the choreography emerged.”[3]

Although put somewhat obliquely, it seems to me undeniable that the “source and home ground” of dancers and choreography alike is black culture. Opus Jazz displayed an emergent structure of feeling in jazz dance through the residual form of ballet—all the dancers were required to have good ballet technique. Robbins stated this less equivocally in a program note:

There has always been a tremendous amount of popular dancing in America. At this time, its vitality has reached a new high, developing and expanding in form and style from the major and basic contributions of the Negro and Latin-American. Because of a strong, unconscious emotional kinship with those minority roots, the teenagers particularly have popularized these dances.[4]

Here Robbins acknowledges the relationship between black culture and youth culture in the 1950s. For this reason alone, Opus Jazz was an explosive work. The consciousness of the integrality of black forms to American culture and the project to deal with this integrality in formal as well as thematic terms is palpable. We should also consider Robbins’s choice of jazz in light of the evolution of jazz itself since the 1940s, when it took to the streets with block parties.[5] Jazz represented the potential for social action.

Photo: Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library, "N.Y. export, opus jazz" (The New York Public Library Digital Collections).

In 1958, Opus Jazz was, in my view, also a potentially explosive work for another reason: it showed the United States through the eyes of youth as an unstable, brutal and racist environment. At the level of social consciousness, Opus Jazz evokes misunderstood youth alienation and, at least in one scene, juvenile delinquency. Opus Jazz does contain a gang rape scene, one which was hardly recognizable as such in the recent performance. (Sexual violence is not an appealing theme in the wake of the scandals that have beleaguered the company of late.) But in 1958 the ballet was also a harbinger of the social unrest that would manifest itself more clearly in the 1960s, during the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement, the marches on Washington in protest against the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and the student uprisings of 1968 as a global phenomenon. Nevertheless, we are left with this rape scene, which doesn’t have the redeemable quality befitting a classic. It is a question as to whether it should be cut. Even classics occasionally need a facelift.

Only one African American dancer, the remarkable John Jones, was in the original cast. In a duet, “Passage for Two,” made for Jones and a white female dancer (Wilma Curly), Robbins put us in mind of the famous duet Balanchine created for Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in his Agon (1957). Here, Robbins’s came across as more daring by placing the duet squarely in social reality. An Israeli reviewer noted: “In many localities of the U.S. itself, the troupe would have been stoned for this performance. Perhaps this is why this wonderful dance closes with the pair crossing each other with a crucifix.”[6] The racial undercurrents were palpable, although Robbins spoke of the ballet in more general terms as depicting “a world which threatens [the youth] constantly and gives them no security.”[7] In his public comments Robbins kept the focus on American youth as the energy matrix for both frustration and change. In this way Robbins foresaw the emergence of the New Left in American politics, which represented a generational shift. An interracial couple did not perform the duet this season, nor must this necessarily be the case. In its current realization I read the performance of the duet by Laine Habony and Peter Walker as a moment of tenderness and fairly innocent sexual exploration aborted, perhaps by distrust, when the dancers walk away from it. Interracial casting, however, might give it an allegorical dimension.

Much has been made of Opus Jazz as a spin-off to West Side Story in a more abstract format, but Robbins’s program note indicates that a specific population is being represented and that the racial undertones are not here divisive but actually unifying. In its emphasis on stylistic rather than narrative qualities, one can also perceive a work that sees social praxis as style, which is a good definition of Raymond Williams’s idea of a structure of feeling as “meanings and values as they are actually lived and felt.”[8] Williams also used the phrase structure of experience: by “structure of feeling,” he meant feelings as they are lived and felt—as part of practical rather than official consciousness. Dance is the obvious vehicle through which to give formal shape to something that is “still in process.” But, how does the dancer prepare for this task? How, in the performance of a classic such as Opus Jazz, does the dancer present feelings still in process when these feelings are some fifty years in the past? What certainly is still in process in our society is the recognition that race need not be divisive, but could instead be unifying.

In a ballet for the group it can often be the case—without much effort by the choreographer—that some kind of “practical consciousness” or “social material process” seems to be explored choreographically. This appears to be the case with Justin Peck’s Principia (2019), which makes conscious reference to Opus Jazz through the use of sneakers as costume elements.  But, in Peck’s ballet, which is also manifestly about the group and even quotes some of Robbins’s choreography, I am unable to recognize a structure of feeling. A structure of feeling relates to “a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sensation of a generation or of a period.”[9] Raymond Williams’s term relates to shared experience, and especially to the “practical consciousness” which he understood as frequently suppressed.

It was therefore disconcerting to see the Company’s youngest dancers (many of them corps members) perform Robbins’s Opus Jazz this season with little to no grasp of its underlying mood or its structure of feeling. The absence of affective quality in this season’s performances of Opus Jazz was made all the more ironic given that film clips with the original cast were playing on a loop across the plaza this winter. They still read as quite powerful, at least to this viewer.

If this year Robbins has not been celebrated by the addition of many more ballets to the NYCB repertory, last year’s festival has continued in events taking place outside the theater: the exhibition “Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York,” masterfully curated by dance scholar Julia Foulkes (which was on view until March 30); and several single events at the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year), the most recent being “Jerry’s Library” (Bruno Walter Auditorium, March 7, 2019). This last event was a celebration of Robbins’s contributions to what used to be called the Dance Collection. The audience was treated to excerpts from Robbins’s Other Dances with Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and we learned that a percentage of royalties from Robbins’s Fiddler on the Roof has been of major support to the Dance Division after the crisis of the New York Public Library’s research collections in the 1970s.

Here it might be useful to consider Robbins’s own research process by recalling his belief in the power of the moving image of dance as a sort of time capsule. Not only was Robbins a strong advocate of the need for a dance library, he was himself an active researcher at the aforementioned Dance Division in preparation for many of his productions. (Films of the ballets he contributed to the archive were on view in the exhibition, which covered Robbins’s entire career). I am not saying that contemporary dancers should watch these films and servilely reproduce earlier performances: works can benefit from updating. But in its current performances of Opus Jazz, the style was neither emulated nor updated, it was performed as if in a historical vacuum. The question remains what approach should be taken, and whether there can be such a thing as a classic with no approach at all. Does a classic exist on its own simply by virtue of the steps being re-performed? Or does the style, which embodies a structure of feeling in the original choreography, also need to be taken into consideration? While Balanchine’s work is always reinforced in the training itself, Robbins’s style is, especially in this case, hybrid. How does the dancer prepare for it?

While some Robbins works are clearly reflective of the periods in which they were choreographed, Opus Jazz, with the exception of the gang rape scene, is a timely choice for audiences in 2019. Just as the pressing political conjuncture we are living through has been compared with that of fascism’s rise in the 1930s, so our current emotional state has been likened to the anxiety experienced in the aftermath of World War II.[10] The insecurity and fear that characterized the Cold War were actually addressed in another Robbins ballet—Age of Anxiety (1949), named after a W.H. Auden poem. Opus Jazz is both a formal and a socially conscious ballet. I am wondering whether this is not the problem for the contemporary dancer today? Are vernacular materials formalized in a concert form now being approached by dancers as nothing more than a variety of neoclassicism? And how does the dancer bring their skill as a theater artist, rather than just as a technical instrument, to bear on a ballet whose theme is anxiety over the past and the future?

Although a formal work, Opus Jazz was historically grounded in that it suggested the dance for the group was an incipient social practice, yet it was also the instantiation of this spirit as style. And, by the same token, in watching the 1959 film of sections of the piece from the Ed Sullivan Show (shown in the exhibition), it is clear that the style is all in the movement dynamics, the details of physical articulation, and each dancer’s particular individuality as a performer. Its affect derives directly from its movement. Yet this is not a formalist claim, for affect also emerges from style, not technique alone. What is this style? The vocabulary is not throwaway, but conjures an implied threat or danger. The references to social dance are potentially explosive; the secret of the work’s convincing theatrical articulation can be unlocked in the applied analysis of the movement itself in rehearsal.

For this, however, the dancers would have to view the film. This is not a call for theatrical simulation: only precisely articulated movement can produce historical affect. When approached through movement analysis dance can be something like a visual and kinaesthetic time machine, putting us in visceral contact with the aesthetic sense and sensation of another time. Robbins said as much when he identified jazz dance as the very structure of feeling of contemporary youth. For the structure of feeling of youth in America in the 1950s we can read Robbins’s original program notes: “Feeling very much like a minority group in this threatening and explosive world, the young have so identified with the dynamics, kinetic impetus the drives and ‘coolness’ of today’s jazz steps that these dances have become our youth’s outlook . . . .”[11] Coolness is a reference to an African-American aesthetic. Amazingly, there was no need then to translate movement into social reality: the style itself had documentary value. For the subtext, read James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg.

Interestingly, Robbins’s Moves of the same period, a ballet danced entirely to silence, was not programmed last year or this. I have seen it very well performed in the past by City Ballet, however, which indicates that the dancers have taken on more expressive qualities than used to be the case. When Moves was first performed by City Ballet in 1984, however, Anna Kisselgoff found it lacking in the necessary intensity. “There was a time when ‘Moves’ was peopled with characters working out their problems. Their relationships were intense.”[12] I agree with Kisselgoff that, despite the capacity for interpretation, we are certainly not seeing the radicality of early Robbins.

Having been lucky enough to see Moves on Broadway in 1958, and again with the Joffrey Ballet in 1967, I can vouch for the fact that it is an emotionally demanding and socially radical work. What it transmitted at the time was a crisis in heteronormative relationships, not a formal study of movement in silence. The silence was radically motivated. Some of this must seep into Opus Jazz. How do we transmit historical radicality in the present?

Konstantin Stanislavsky taught us that the actor must find the personal equivalent for the character’s feelings in order to bring the character to life. In dance, this interior life plays a role, but the difference between dancing and acting is that affect is in the choreography itself if dancers can read and reproduce it faithfully, adding to it as they nuance their own interpretation. This is what the very concept of repertory not only requires, but demands, in order to remain viable. It is another aspect of T. S. Eliot’s idea of permanent form (as discussed in my last essay), one which does not only point to the historicity of technique but also the integrity of the choreographic score itself as something that needs to be re-articulated in each new performance. And, here we return as well to Robbins’s involvement with the archive, research, and sources through which the dancer works.

Yet all this depends as well on the perception of a connection between then and now. Is there a similar structure of feeling? The role of the rehearsal director is to pose this question and to guide the dancer’s corporeal research; the rehearsal should be thought of as a laboratory of social memory in individual physical form.  


MARK FRANKO is a Guggenheim Fellow writing a book on neoclassical dance in France. He is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Dance at Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University. Choreographing Discourses: A Mark Franko Reader has just appeared from Routledge.


[1] New York Export: Opus Jazz is the only addition to the winter season of Robbins’s choreography that was not seen last year in the “Robbins at 100” festival (although it has been seen in recent years).

[2] The company premiere of Ballets: U.S.A. took place at Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Festival of Two Worlds and in the U.S. Pavilion of the Brussels World Fair in 1958. That same year it appeared on Broadway in its own season. A second tour in 1959 was sponsored by the State Department’s International Cultural Program administered by ANTA and took the company to  Paris, Berlin, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Salzburg, Belgrade, Dubrovnik, Athens, London, Barcelona, Lisbon, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Stockholm, Warsaw, Reykjavik, Ljubljana, and Tel Aviv.. There was a third European tour in 1961. The high-point of all these tours was Opus Jazz. See Deborah Jowitt, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2004).

[3] Jerome Robbins, “The Background of “Ballets: U.S.A.,” typescript, S*MGZMD 46 Ballets: USA records, II. Writings of Jerome Robbins, Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

[4] Jerome Robbins program note cited in Michael Iachetta, “Joffrey Does Robbins Opus Jazz,” in The Daily News (March 22, 1974), n.p. Jerome Robbins Personal Papers, Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, (S)* MGZMD 182, box 54, folder 17

[5] See “Dancin’ in the Streets” in Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 154-161.

[6] “Brilliant New York Export,” in Maariv (27 July 1959). Jerome Robbins Personal Papers, Dance Division, (S) *MGZMD 182, box 54, folder 17, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

[7] Interview with Jerome Robbins on the TV show “Look up and Live” (February 23, 1958) on a loop in the exhibit.           

[8] Raymond Williams, “Structures of Feeling, in Marxism and Literature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 132.

[9] Ibid., 131.

[10] See, for example, Gavin Jacobson, “Our Age of Anxiety,” in Times Literary Supplement (February 6, 2019).

[11] Robbins’s 1974 program notes cited in Michael Iachetta, “Joffrey Does Robbins’ ‘Opus Jazz’ in Daily News (March 22, 1974). Jerome Robbins Personal Papers, Dance Division, (S) *MGZMD 182, box 54, folder 17, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. It is worth noting here that Robbins did not update his program note in 1974.

[12] Anna Kisselgoff, “Ballet: ‘Moves’ by Jerome Robbins,” New York Times (May 4, 1984), C32.


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