Thursday, November 4, 2010

La Danse: Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris

For some, 2 hours and 39 minutes pinned as a fly-on-the-wall of a premiere ballet company might be akin to one of Dante's circles of hell. For others (and not just balletomanes), tempus will fly by like one of the flitting, majestic, and ludicrously talented creatures that grace Frederick Wiseman's superb documentary. Entirely free from talking heads or narration or any kind, it’s as if Wiseman has merely ventured behind the velvet curtain of the prestigious Ballet de l'Opera National de Paris (Paris Opera Ballet), planted some cameras and cut it all together at the aforementioned, leisurely pace.

But of course there's a much more subtle genius at work here. With the absence of such documentary/narrative staples, the devil (or should that be the divinity?) is in the detail. Early on Wiseman captures the artistic director mentioning the imperative for the older dancers to pass their knowledge down the line. This instills a theme that is evoked and confirmed in the many vignettes of choreographers and their performers painstakingly perfecting their dance. Movements that appear jaw-droppingly faultless are tweaked and even grumbled over by the cast of demanding artists. Then again, credit where credit's due, the demands and debate consistently result in performances which ascend before your eyes to new levels of beauty and craftsmanship.

This blood, sweat and tears aren't the sole domain of the dance floor. Wiseman's camera spends time in the cafeteria, the costumery, with the maintenance men and, most delightfully, with a lone bee-keeper and his hives that are kept on the roof of the Paris Opera. Alongside all these adjunct employees, funding becomes another recurring theme of the documentary — how do you keep this magic factory in business? So you can't help but wince when the Lehman Brothers are mentioned as an interested party in the company's various, luxury patronage packages.

Yes it's long, but like the seven ballet productions it follows, La Danse prizes meticulous, exhaustive and downright entrancing precision. Wiseman allows the realities, the creativity and the emotional investment of this prodigious company enough time to be not just appreciated, but actually felt by his audience. Indeed, La Danse is a film that makes you profoundly grateful documentaries exist.

La Danse is in cinemas now

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