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Reviews - La Danse - The Paris Opera Ballet

La Danse - The Paris Opera Ballet

Reviewed By John Stakes

La Danse - The Paris Opera Ballet
La Danse - The Paris Opera Ballet
The final film in the club’s autumn season screened last Sunday was Frederick Wiseman’s "La Danse", a documentary filmed in and around the Palais Garnier , the home of "Le Ballet de l‘Opéra de Paris".

Wiseman is a celebrated American documentary film-maker, having practised his craft over the past forty years and completed thirty eight documentaries. He is what may be described as an institutional observer, the vast majority of his films focusing on the personnel of a huge variety of organisations from psychiatric hospitals to boxing booths. He is no stranger to the world of ballet dancing having filmed the US Ballet Theatre at work in 1995.

Wiseman describes his films as accounts of his experiences in making his films rather than an objective analysis of his subject matters. He amasses huge amounts of footage. His rigorous and manipulative shooting and editing technique still leaves around three hours of viewing time, structured, as he believes, in such a way as to allow the dramatic tensions of the situations being filmed to develop and to lead to a natural climax and conclusion.

In “La Danse” we see the rigorous and meticulous rehearsal regimes endemic to the world of ballet in no less than seven productions. We are taken up to the roof of the Palais Garnier to observe a bee-keeper at work, an obvious metaphor for the worker corps of dancers below controlled by queen bee Madame Lefèvre who could talk for France. The life of the ballet troupe is observed in clinical detail so we can appreciate the gruelling athleticism, style and grace of the performer. In many ways Wiseman’s world is replicated in the wordless (but not completely soundless) world of the dancer.

Whether we come to better appreciate the art form of ballet is questionable but there is no doubting Wiseman’s skill in demonstrating the extraordinary physical demands and dedication of this particular art form. But was there more to engage us over the two and a half hours’ running time?

Night followed day repeatedly as Wiseman deliberately set out to demonstrate the daily grind of rehearsal routine. It was all stick and no carrot as he left any footage of performance nights and audience appreciation on the cutting room floor. Why? If it was because he wanted us to feel the long haul of dedication he succeeded. But Madame Lefèvre had told us, getting all the often intricate steps correct amounted to a gift to the audience “so they could feel without explanation”. So why not show this? Why deny us this feeling? If Wiseman appears to care not a fig for the audience-performer experience, why should we as his audience care about his film?

The Palais Garnier was depicted as no more than an impersonal soulless dance factory beset with exactly the same problems as any other business which may be true but repeated static shots of empty corridors and dripping sewers became tiresome. Wiseman eschewed countless opportunities to engage our emotions. His camera work was consistently pedestrian and nothing more was revealed in the second half than had been shown in the first. His editing appeared random and arbitrary. We can only
conclude that Wiseman had no interest in the relationship between the artist and the public and nothing more was revealed about the personalities of the dancers than their relentless dedication. We were denied any denouement to the build up of any of the seven ballets in rehearsal contrary to Wiseman’s own declared constructive approach to his work. It was frustrating and mystifying. How interesting would Delia Smith be if she limited herself to mixing ingredients and not even switching on the oven?

Wiseman’s film has been critically acclaimed but has received a more mixed response from the public. It is always far more difficult to respond to a documentary work however subjective than to any fictionalised and dramatised evocation or reworking of events. Wiseman may well have satisfied his own criteria in revealing only those aspects of the balletic life of this particular troupe which interested him. But, for this reviewer, an appreciation of the skill and dedication of the dancers to their art was an insufficient stimulant to sustain us over such a lengthy running time, and the depiction of the everyday banalities and conditions of Palais life became pointlessly repetitious. At least we learned that some sequins are glued on.

None of this should detract from the fact that this has been a wonderfully stimulating season and the 2011 spring season is destined to deliver a programme at least as challenging and rewarding. The club can be proud of its reputation for showing the best of world cinema.

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