Posted: 01/20/2010


La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

by Del Harvey

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In this incredible documentary, master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman peeks behind the curtain of the Paris Opera Ballet company to revisit his great love of ballet, but also an institution not unlike dozens of others he’s profiled in his 40-year career. The film devotes most of its time to watching impossibly beautiful young men and women — among them Nicolas Le Riche, Marie-Agnès Gillot, and Agnès Letestu — rehearsing the choreography of Mats Ek, Wayne McGregor, Rudolf Nureyev and Pina Bausch.

The film is presented without narrative. Instead, we are shown vignettes of the various classes studying, practicing, rehearsing, going behind the scenes, even into such pedestrian areas as the cafeteria, the workshops, or even the ticket booth of the Palais Garnier. By showing us the daily workings of this venerable institution, and by connecting each segment with shots of empty hallways and staircases which lead from classroom to office to stage, Wiseman gives us a sense of actually being there, of not only seeing and hearing, but feeling what the dancers, the instructors, the administrators and staff feel in every aspect of their daily work. And the result is a masterpiece of documentary film.

La Danse is a photographic investigation into the both the life and the craft of the artists who put their soul into the ballet. We see the dancers first master a phrase, then a sequence and, finally, perform parts of such wonderful works as “Paquita” and “Medea” during dress rehearsal. Wiseman allows his camera to wander through the building, at times capturing a plasterer at work or a dressmaker dying costumes, but more often simply journaling the real and the metaphorical heart and soul of the space.

In one sequence, he takes us to the roof itself, where a beekeeper in full netting gear and gloves carefully removes the combs from their hive as the insects swarm around him, his only witness the ancient and brooding gargoyles. The beekeeper, calmly going about his solitary work in this most unlikely of aeries, high above the City of Paris, presents both a counterpoint and an underscore to the very working of the ballet company within. It is the perfect metaphor for the business of the hive that is the Palais Garnier.

Meanwhile, within the building the instructors teach their charges diligently, preparing them for their next performance, helping to shape their movement and form within a set space, gliding majestically or whirling on an imaginary apex, the work continues day in and day out, and the workers enjoy their duties as much as the bees in the hive up on the rooftop.

Then there are the dancers in whose bodies seem to reside all of the emotions that inspire the great ballets. Wiseman never celebrates them in an obvious way; instead, he observes, knowing that the intimacy he provides will breed an appreciation of form and artistry and storytelling. In the dancer, Wiseman discovers the same dedication to a passionate but wordless method of performance not unlike his own unique style of filmmaking. The dancers find their parts in repetitions of the same movement, and Wiseman “finds” his institutions—for they have become “his”—in years spent behind the unblinking eye of a static camera. In the final scenes, when we see the dancers in performance, we get much more than the wealthy donors because we’ve seen the beehive from the inside out.

At 2 hours and 38 minutes, this documentary is a labor of love and an absolutely beautiful cinematic achievement. The film is a true homage to both the prestige and the excellence of the Paris Opera Ballet.

The film is now playing in limited release around the U.S. The DVD will be released in Spring of 2010. For more information, click here.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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