Thursday, September 10, 2009

Late Thursday Afternoon in Williamsburg: New York City Ballet performing Jerome Robbins' "NY Export: Opus Jazz" at the McCarren Park Pool

On a chilly, dark afternoon at the tail end of summer, we had the high honor and distinct privilege of returning to the now-shuttered McCarren Park Pool for one last dance as the New York City Ballet performed an adaptation of "NY Export: Opus Jazz" by the legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Alerted this morning by an email from the wonderfully dedicated folks at the Open Space Alliance, we were excited to check out what's been done to the pool since it closed at the end of last summer's concert and film performances and to see it come alive one more time with music (recorded), dance, a little food and wine, and youthful energy.

About fifty or sixty of us, from hipsters to older people to a lot of parents with young kids bragging about their new adult teeth, sucking lollipops or eating PB&J sandwiches, sat in folding chairs in the area where bands performed during the seasons of the JellyNYC pool parties.

We watched the filming, for Channel 13's Great Performances/Dance in America series, of the classic Jerome Robbins work, "[s]et to a rousing jazz score, the movements blend ballet, jazz, and ballroom dancing with Latin, African and American rhythms, to create a style that is powerfully expressive, sexy and contemporary."

Directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes were filming the "ballet in sneakers," the first of Robbins' works to be adapted for the screen since West Side Story.

The Open Space Alliance email said that this summer workers had de-watered the pool's ancient pipes and did testing and other preliminary work in the pool. The next stages of construction will happen after officials evaluate bids and make deals with selected contractors. The email poetically called this afternoon "a fleeting chance for one last dance in the Pool as we know and love it."

The Lorimer Street gated-up entrance was opened slightly so that we could get in, and people could also come in through the back fence opening on Leonard Street across from the junior high.

We got there at 5 p.m. and sat with some others on the ledges at the west edge of the pool.

We were behind the camera operator and watched the technicians, directors, and other professionals prepare for the shoot.

This gent from the Parks Department seemed to supervising things on that end, discussing with someone the opened entrances to the pool.

Eventually we were told that there were three rows of white folding chairs for us inside the pool itself.

The audience, mostly unaccustomed to the sudden outbreak of autumn weather, were
either wearing jackets and at least one scarf or shorts and t-shirts. We watched some people hug their arms to their chests or stuff their hands in their pockets to ward off the chills.

After a preliminary run-through, the dancers removed their sweatshirts and jackets and went through several iterations of selections from the ballet, which had its premiere performance in Italy at the first Spoleto Festival in 1958 (thus its "NY Export" title).

The directors came out to talk with them between takes.

Writing in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times on October 29, 1961, John Martin called "NY Export, Opus Jazz" (sometimes it has a colon, sometimes a comma) "an exceptionally clever work, full of invention in the jazz idiom, theatrically effective, and as slick as a whistle."

But Martin, in what now seems a particularly fusty harrumph, said in the "ballet in sneakers" and similar works
Mr. Robbins has created an abstract classicism of the vulgar; he has removed his chararacters from all relation to realism and peopled his 'ballet' with an artificial stylization of what Mayor Wagner recently called 'juvenile punks'...

Sounds pretty good to us.

And while we remember as a 10yo going with our Grandpa Herb - he was then younger than we are now - into the voting booth at Mrs. Mogg's candy store on Church Avenue and East 43rd Street when he pulled the lever for the mayor in his bid for a third term a few weeks after that review was published,

we had no idea that Robert F. Wagner Jr. played such a critical role in the development of New York's punk culture.

And in the hands (and arms, bodies, legs, feet, etc.) of the young, playful and energetic New York City Ballet dancers, the "artificial stylization" of the "juvenile punks" looked mighty good as we watched the repeated, but not repetitious performances for the camera.

We're not sure what the white lines painted throughout the pool were for - probably the summer construction work.

We applauded softly at the end and probably would have clapped louder had we not been instructed not to. We look forward to seeing the full show on WNET/13. We also got to see some terrific, seemingly impromptu dance by the really talented performers.

Afterwards, at the Open Space Alliance booth so familiar to us from many great outdoor events in North Brooklyn, there were refreshments, including "wine for those eligible to drink wine," as one speaker put it.

We don't drink, and unlike the little girls and boys in front of us (one of whom had brought her own portable Tot-Spot seat),

we didn't have a sippy cup of apple juice handy.

So we just explored the weedy bare ruined choirs of the pool and remembered fondly the good times we had here in the past.

Even in its current moribund state, the McCarren Park Pool still has life breaking through.

Someday it will open again.

Many thanks to the Parks Department, the Open Space Alliance, the New York City Ballet, and Channel 13/WNET for letting us get this chance to see the beloved pool again. "NY Export: Opus Jazz" was a great way to enjoy the McCarren Park Pool on this blustery, otherwise grim afternoon.

Now if they could only get the B48 bus to come in less than 25 minutes.

UPDATE, March 24, 2010: Seeing the performance on TV tonight was a thrill.

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