Frederick Wiseman’s mosquito-eating-dragonfly-on-the-wall style transforms the expected into the enchanting and the mundane into the mystical. His newest documentary La Danse tours through the circuitry of the Paris Opera Ballet’s tireless company and its mother ship, the Opera. From the folks that deodorize the slippers to the stage hens who make the magic behind the magic—you’re convinced there’s nothing more desirable than being a part of this troupe. Auds should buy into this unsafe setup and broken leg execution set to post rosy returns at the ticket counter.
Wiseman must have set down his heavily-inked CV before the Paris Opera Ballet’s artistic director (a.k.a “God”) to receive the all-access pass he was granted to shoot La Danse. The jugular doc gets straight to the gritty and grueling. Dancers land on a blank canvas to relentlessly perfect their steps before eagle-eyed maestros. Wiseman doesn’t bother interviewing anyone. No need. He simply mics the various teachers in their classes and internal meetings and you learn quickly why the company is world class. Practice. Discipline. Methods vary but the sweat is the same. There are choreographers staging avant-garde pieces that infuse trip-hop beats and hybrid techniques. Then there’s the behemoth production of Tchaikovsky’s Casse-Noisette underway. Tailors and seamstresses frantically stitch, glue beads and sculpt extravagant masks. Everything is handmade.
The dancers are aesthetes and athletes. They’re the racecar and the driver, the horse and the jockey, half-nun and half-boxer. While few dare speak—they are constantly scrutinized—they’re sponges to the choreographer’s pedagogy and determined to perfect their routines. The scenes of soloists practicing alone in mirrored rooms resemble shadow boxers before a fight. The dancer imagines, nay, foresees the next lunge or turn. Cut to dress rehearsal onstage, they do the same steps with all the moving parts. Intermittent shots of Paris break up the ballet prep. Photo arrays taken from rooftops, cobblestone streets, windows into other windows establish a retreated context. Internally, the building’s on display: its basement, sewer system (replete with dancing salamanders), fairytale ropes and pulleys all breaking before show time.
Wiseman’s sound work went straight to the creamy conversations at the top. There may be some that criticize the lengthy 158-minute runtime, but I submit that it’s justified. The idea is to become steeped in this hard-toed world for a generous chunk of time. After a while the dancer’s styles become more distinct. You get to know many of the personalities of each without words. It’s in their performance. It’s in what the teacher says or doesn’t say. You get a heavy dose of rehearsal, but it’s appropriate. The making-of is in many ways more thrilling than the final product. The old adage “nobody likes to see sausage being made” doesn’t fit here. You want to see the pudding: the slips on the chalky wood, the rips in the leotard, the bruises and blistering. It’s bare, bold and beautiful.
Director/Producer: Frederick Wiseman
Running time: 158 min.
Release date: November 4 NY