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'La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet' (2009)

Documentary film by Frederick Wiseman

by Carmel Morgan

Published January 2010

If you love dance, then you also probably love to see dance on film.  Veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet” has captured fabulous footage of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet that’s not to be missed.

Wiseman leads viewers on a fascinating journey.  Through his lens, we become voyeurs.  Not only does he show us the Paris Opera Ballet’s lovely dancers, he shows us in exquisite detail the environment in which they perfect their art.  It’s not all pretty and romantic.  There are countless rehearsals and coaching sessions.  There are many corrections, of course, which seem trivial at times, and tons of repetition.  Additionally, there are behind-the-scenes goings on – a union meeting about pension concerns, talk about activities for big benefactors, a frank discussion with an older dancer about taking on fewer roles, seamstresses sewing delicate costumes, a worker patching the ceiling, etc.  And then there are the gorgeous shots of the building.  These shots are static, emphasizing the stillness of the space without the presence of the dancers.  There are winding spiral staircases, lonely hallways, and circular windows that let in natural light.  Plus, unexpectedly, on the roof there are bees and in the underbelly of the theater even fish!

Perhaps the most riveting thing about “La Danse” is being able to watch the dancers grow.  A choreographer shakes his head no, the dancer repeats a phrase, and the choreographer says no again, and again.  Our hearts rise and fall.  Finally, the dancer gets it right.  We feel her elation.  The relatively few excerpts from performances are rewarding, particularly because we appreciate all the work that’s gone into getting each piece ready for the stage. 

I expected a lot of close-ups of the dancers, and while there are some, Wiseman generally takes a big picture view, which compliments the dancing.  Most often you see the whole of the dance, from afar, rather than miscellaneous body parts.  The distance effectively draws one into the lives of the dancers without having one’s view tainted with undue intimacy. 

No stars are born in this film.  There are no interviews, no captions or voiceovers explaining what or who we are seeing.  Everything speaks for itself.  If there are blanks to be filled in, and there are many, we must do the work.  I found this approach extremely satisfying.  If you’ve ever wished you could be a fly on the wall during a ballet rehearsal, then you will be pleased.  This is precisely the gift that Wiseman gives us.     

I also expected to see a lot of the Paris Opera Ballet’s classical repertoire.  Instead, a great deal of the rehearsal and performance footage is of contemporary pieces.  This seems a bit strange, especially because the film reveals that the Paris Opera Ballet’s young dancers had been avoiding contemporary classes.  Does contemporary dance intimidate them?  I wondered if the choice to focus on contemporary ballets was because Wiseman simply found these dances more compelling. Toward the end of the film, the footage of Angelin Preljocaj’s “Le Songe de Médée,” certainly strikes an emotional wallop.  Also included in the film are: “Genus” by Wayne McGregor, “La Maison de Bernarda” by Mats Ek, “Paquita” by Pierre Lacotte, “Casse Noisette” by Rudolph Noureev, “Orphée and Eurydice” by Pina Bausch, and “Romeo and Juliette” by Sasha Waltz.     

The film is meandering – a lengthy 2 hours and 38 minutes.  Yet there’s a flow to it.  The flow isn’t narrative, however, so you could easily take a 10-15 minute break and rejoin the film without feeling that you’ve missed anything.  The slow pace and lack of story actually add to the film’s interest, and I would recommend it to all dance fans and fans of documentary film as well.

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