Film review: La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

Posted on: 05 May 2010 by Mark O'haire

The worlds of ballet and cinema seamlessly merge in Frederick Wiseman’s superb new fly-on-the-wall documentary La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet.

The Paris Opera Ballet is one of the leading ballet companies. With unparallel access Wiseman takes us behind the scenes into rehearsals, placing dance itself at the heart of the film and he shows us how a ballet company functions from administration and fundraising to the selection of dancers, costume department and classes. We see preparations for and performances of seven ballets, including The Nutcracker by Rudolf Nureyev, Medea by Angelin Preljocaj, Genus by Wayne McGregor, The House of Bernarda Alba by Mats Ek, Romeo & Juliet by Sasha Walts and Orpheus & Eurydyce by Pina Bausch. The camera quietly observes the artistry of ballet come together from all angles, and the viewer shares every moment - no matter how small.

Frederick Wiseman is arguably America’s greatest living documentarist and at 79 an expert in his field, who has in the past cast a probing and illuminating eye over such areas as law and order, a juvenile court, the fashion industry (in Model), domestic violence, a hospital, a zoo, a race track and a high school, so that we not only become fully acquainted with the subject itself but also those who earn their living in it or are affected by it.

La Danse strikes me as one of his most successful ventures. As to why he chose this subject, Wiseman points out, “First of all I wanted to study what dance is and its relationship to the body and the mind, every gesture that a dancer makes is a result of instruction and practice. From the age of six or seven a dancer is taught how to manipulate their body and achieve formal beauty. Then as they age they often suffer dance-related injuries. Dance uses artifice to create beauty and temporarily interrupt the natural progression of the body towards decay and death. Performance, like the body, is transient. It is a privilege to watch people who have consecrated themselves to the life of dance and who cannot win this battle against decay and death, or only for a very short moment. I am fascinated by the evanescence of dance.”

The relationship here between the beauty of the ballet excerpts we see and the sheer hard work that lies behind them is subtly Drawn, and the struggle to maintain creative integrity in the face of commercial reality, has a resonance far beyond the specific context. But it is not only the performance and administrators that Wiseman focuses on, he shows how everyone - from the cleaners to the choreographers - have an equally important part to play in making this such a revered institution.

In fact you don’t have to be a dance lover to find this such a fascinating and absorbing experience and for me one of the best films of 2010.


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