Frederick Wiseman has spent more than 40 years as a documentary filmmaker, virtually defining the “fly on the wall” approach, observing the functioning of institutions—political, social, artistic. It’s the latter that’s on display in La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet—and once again, he has created an epic out of mundane-but-essential detail.
Over the course of 158 minutes, Wiseman tracks the preparations of the Paris Opera Ballet for its 2008 season. The payoff will be a group of remarkable works, ranging from the traditional to the more avant-garde—but before that can happen, there will be plenty of rehearsing and hundreds of hours of preparation by many behind-the-scenes people.
Like many of Wiseman’s works, there’s a looseness to the structure of La Danse that can make the grand running time feel self-indulgent. Numerous rehearsal scenes blend into transitions capturing the Paris cityscape, which transition back into rehearsal scenes. If Wiseman finds a moment fascinating, he’s not about to let it go—for better or for worse.
But in his attention to minutia, the filmmaker captures how much effort goes into creating art that seems effortless. Costumers apply individual sequins to fabric by hand; custodians clean up the grand Palais Garnier after a performance; technicians ready the lighting cues. The most intriguing subject is artistic director Brigitte Lefevre, who bounces between presiding over a gala dinner, ministering to the psyches of her dancers and dealing with the realities of negotiating government retirement benefits for troupe members.
On a few occasions, Wiseman captures dancers outside of formal rehearsals, working on their own in front of a mirror even after having every move judged and critiqued by their choreographers. When we finally see the onstage performances in La Danse, we know that as beautiful as a creative endeavor may be, a lot of the time it’s also the result of a job well done.
LA DANSE: THE PARIS OPERA BALLET