I can think of few finer pleasures than watching great dances in movies. Could there be anything more exhilarating than a number featuring Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? And yet, the sad truth is that most filmmakers don’t know how to present the dance – how to bring it to life without decimating its essential spatial integrity with lots of distracting close-ups and cutaways. The dancers had to be shown in full.
One of the many wonderful things about Fred Wiseman’s new documentary “La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris” is how it reveals the dancers in all their hard-earned, full-bodied glory. Wiseman once made a 1993 documentary about American Ballet Theater, and he understands that the drama of dance is, quite simply, in the dance, not the behind-closed-doors pyrotechnics. When he shows these gifted ballet dancers in rehearsal, he lets their movements communicate. And why not? Their language is as eloquent as words could ever be. Wiseman is clearly in thrall to these dancers, but, as in all his films, his eye is relentlessly scrupulous. “La Danse” is the work of a sensualist ascetic. His unwavering eye sheds light on the meaning of movement.
“The Dance” is Wiseman’s 38th film in 40 years, and it confirms his place as our greatest documentarian. No other living American director has so continually demonstrated such fierce sympathy for people’s lives. His films, including masterpieces such as ‘High School’, ‘Hospital’, ‘Basic Training’, Welfare’, ‘Juvenile Court’ and ‘Domestic Violence’, all deal with how institutions frame the Human Experience does not enjoy widespread public recognition because his films, after theatrical or television screenings, are generally only available through his Cambridge, Mass.-based company, Zipporah Films. . www.zipporah.com.)
Located in the monumental Palais Garnier, the Ballet de Paris is one of the largest ballet companies in the world, and also one of the least frequented. Their American tours are few. Wiseman offers what appears to be insider insight into a secret society. Despite the hardship of the training and the assiduous criticism from the coaches, many of whom are former dancers, something ineffable hovers in the air. The greatest of these dancers, including Agnès Letestu, Mathieu Ganio, Nicolas Le Riche or Marie-Agnès Gillot, seem possessed by their gifts. Dancing doesn’t just complement them. Dance is their apotheosis.
The mystery of “La Danse” is that even when you see a show broken down into its smallest steps, it remains inexplicable. (As usual, Wiseman provides no voiceover narration or, until the closing credits, no identifying titles.) The film turns us into the cinematic equivalent of close readers, and yet, regardless of the he intensity with which we watch a movement, there is always something that escapes us. (A trainer explains to a dancer, “You go up beautifully, but I miss the weight when you go down,” and my first thought was, “Yeah sure, why didn’t I see that?”) t romanticize anything. He doesn’t have to – the beauty of what he shows us speaks for itself.
He does this even when we’re faced with the mundane rigors of the Paris Ballet – fundraising meetings, talks about retirement benefits and pensions, lunch breaks in the cafeteria, seamstresses sewing ornaments into costumes. Wiseman’s films are often implicitly about how people somehow survive the brutalities of bureaucracy. With “La Danse”, they not only survive, but they triumph. You can almost hear Wiseman laughing: This art is so indestructible that it beats even boring committee planning sessions.
In “La Danse”, Wiseman transports us inexorably from repetition to finished performance. The effect, over the course of two and a half hours, is like seeing a draft coalesce into something incomparably delicate. Watching ballerina Delphine Moussin make her way to Medea in all her bloody beauty is the essence of this wonderful film. It is a celebration of the alchemy of artistic transfiguration. Rating: A