Film tiptoes backstage with ballet

Dancers of The Paris Opera Ballet rehearsing "The Nutcracker"

By Steve Sucato

Dance is an art form of discovery. For audiences and those involved in the making and performance of it there is both curiosity and mystery in its processes. For his 38th film, award-winning documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman returns to chronicling the art form in La Danse, a film about today’s Paris Opera Ballet.

In the film Wiseman, whose films have generally focused on American institutions, goes behind the scenes of the world’s oldest ballet company at its home in Paris’ Palais Garnier. Cinematographer John Davey like the building’s legendary Phantom of the Opera moves through the narrow hallways of the 19th century building, into costume rooms, administrative offices, onto its roof to observe views of the city and a beekeeper and his bees and into several of its upstairs circular dance studios where much of the 2 ½ hour film is spent.

And like the Phantom, he and the camera seem to go largely unnoticed. We view the goings on, in typical Wiseman fashion, with no setup, narration, interviews, and virtually nothing to identify who we are watching and what they are up to. We are left to our own devices to discover from what we observe (or read in the subtitles) what it is we are witnessing.

For balletomanes and those less familiar with dance, the film like Wiseman’s other dance film 1995’s Ballet about American Ballet Theatre, unmasks the process of making world-class dance and the technical skill and effort that goes into it. We are given an insider’s view of dancers, choreographers and répétiteurs at work from the company’s stars to students of the Paris Opera Ballet School along with the dozens charged with the business of running one of the world’s largest ballet organizations.

The film opens on British choreographer Wayne McGregor setting his contemporary dance work “Genus” on a pair of POB’s dancers.

“Da Da Dey Da Whoooah,” McGregor sings along in place of music to the dancers in between barrages of vocal pops and clicks. It’s not the King’s English nor French, but a choreographer’s language the dancers understand nonetheless.

From the get go with this scene we see how extraordinarily talented POB’s dancers are and the machine-like precision in which they and the POB work. Much of the rest of the film’s first half we bounce from rehearsals of other dance works including Angelin Preljocaj’s “Le Songe de Médée, Pina Bausch’s “Orphée et Eurydice ” and Rudolf Nureyev’s “The Nutcracker” to staff meetings with artistic director Brigitte LeFèvre — where in one she describes her dancers as being both like race horses and their jockeys — and along the way we watch costumers at work, workman paint and plaster the Palais Garnier and take in the grand architecture of the building.

As in Ballet we see dancers and others addressing miscues and missteps, as in one scene were two répétiteurs squabble over the correctness of a correction given to a dancer on foot placement. Unlike Ballet however, where Wiseman followed ABT’s dancers to an amusement park and a beach, in La Danse we rarely see POB’s dancers as anything more than LeFèvre’s characterization of them as thoroughbreds. The film makes clear it is not about individuals so much as it is about those individuals making up the whole of what the POB is today.

The remainder of the film gives us more of the same along with some spectacular views of the Palais Garnier’s resplendent theater with its scarlet velvet seats and Marc Chagall ceiling as well as some superb stage level footage and performances of Preljocaj’s “Le Songe de Médée and Bausch’s “Orphée et Eurydice ” in dress rehearsal.

Overall La Danse is a triumph and a must-see for anyone with an interest in dance. Its beauty and insider look at the POB is priceless. Less so however, is what any dancer in professional company can tell you it lacks, a real unfiltered sense of dance as occupation and its toll on the body, as well as the exhilaration and joy that comes from dancing and performing.

This review appeared in shortened form in The Plain Dealer on January 3, 2010

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