La Danse: The Paris Ballet Opera

Director: Frederick Wiseman
Starring: Documentary film produced by Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Frederick Wiseman and Françoise Gazio.
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Runtime: 152 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Adult themes

For decades, Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries. He has covered a wide range of institutions, interested in presenting them, exploring them, and leaving his audience able to form opinions and make their judgments about the value and values of the institution. His documentaries tend to be long and thorough and offer the impression of objectivity.

This is what he has done here. The institution under observations in the Danse Theatre of the Paris Opera.

It is as if we were invited to go on a tour of the Opera House, not just the theatre auditorium (which appears only briefly with its Chagall roof). Rather, we go upstairs and downstairs, through corridors and basements, to offices and workrooms behind the scenes and, especially, to the rehearsal rooms.

It is a long tour, just under three hours. Those whose favourite music form is not ballet will enjoy it but perhaps want to move to other rooms. Those whose favourite music form is the ballet will not worry too much about the time spent.

The tour is mainly inside, though it is punctuated every so often by a breather. We look at Montmartre, the overview of the geometry of Paris boulevards, the gabled roofs, the Opera facades, local detail. We are definitely in Paris.

Ballet is the focus of the film and it stays. There are some scenes with the artistic director, her vision of the company and its program, some pep talks to the group and to a dancer, and some scenes of meetings about contracts and pensions, and the dancer’s active career ending at 40.

But, most of the film is watching rehearsals and some performances. Anyone who thought that ballet might be a dance soft option will have to marvel at the strenuous rehearsals, the requirements of timing, balance, the tough physical realities of mime, motion and agility. We listen to several choreographers and instructors in action and pay attention to the small details they require of the dancers for greater perfection. We see the dancers repeat their lessons, sometimes failing, affirmed when they succeed. We see the dancers with natural talent and those who have to work on technique. We see the achievements in the selections of ballets, some classical but many quite modern in their visual style and action as well as musical score.

Interestingly, there is no real indication of house politics or disputes, though we can see where tensions could rise, bureaucratic and/or artistic temperament.

However, Wiseman and his director of photography (who offers models of framing, zooming quietly, blending medium shots and close-ups, with fine-tuned editing, for how cinema can unobtrusively capture the movement, grace and talents of the dancers in action) offer us the luxury of a visit and the observing of a world class ballet company in action.

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