La Danse: the Paris Opera Ballet (2009), a documentary by Frederick Wiseman
The Musée d’Orsay contains two scale models of the Palais Garnier (1875) which must rank among the greatest of all time. Within the museum the models terminate the former railway station’s main axis, forming a kind of culmination. Along with Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851), unlikely to be mentioned in a Parisian museum, the Garnier is perhaps the definitive building of its century. The first model, implanted beneath a glass floor, shows the building in its urban context, clearly demonstrating that the great opera house precipitated for its neighborhood the Full Haussmann. The second model, built to a highly detailed scale (perhaps 1:100) for such a large building, is cut through in longitudinal section like a doll’s house, revealing the famously ornate lobby and hall as relatively minuscule inhabited planets orbited by a dark matter cloud of unnamed rooms and fly towers. Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse, a fly on the wall portrait of the Paris Opera Ballet, seems the cinematic equivalent of that sectional model, but it would be more accurate to say that it is simultaneously both models. The film uses its all access backstage pass, its sore toes, sweat and heavy breathing, to achieve the purpose of the contextual model, the definition of an institution within a city.
La Danse attempts to show the entirety of the organism known as the Paris Opera Ballet, from the overcooked broccoli in the staff cafeteria to the sewing of sequins onto costumes, administrative meetings, fund raising and, mostly, dancing. Wiseman’s scenes are coherent within themselves; each of the many rehearsals we see has a beginning, middle and end. Ballet fans will appreciate the fact that the dance sequences, both in rehearsal and performance, are given time to unfold. There are none of the talking heads or voice overs which too often detract from the performances in performing arts documentaries. The ‘story’ told by a scene might only be a tiny moment within the history of the illustrious company — the refinement of a tricky step, or a briefing to the dancers on the status of their retirement pensions — but Wiseman seems to know that the institutions he has made his life’s subject cannot help but be built of such moments.
These scenes maintain a dramatic tension which reminds us that cinema verité is not the same thing as surveillance camera footage. La Danse is a meticulously crafted film and its seemingly minimal technique — images, sound and nothing else — is superb. Long-time Wiseman cinematographer John Davey seems to be on a dance of his own, always ending up in the right place, without intruding on the dancers (no small feat in intimate rehearsal spaces lined with floor to ceiling mirrors!). Wiseman himself serves as sound recordist, an arrangement which results in both a smaller crew and an extraordinarily expressive sound mix in which spoken, musical and physical communication trade off in an unbroken flow. At one point we hear two choreographers engaged in a disembodied and amusing critique of a dress rehearsal, as though, à la Biden, they had momentarily forgotten about their microphones.
Within themselves, the scenes are involving enough to suggest that the film, like the company, could theoretically go on forever as a succession of moments. The overall structure is far looser than the individual scenes. While it is sometimes frustrating, and I think unnecessarily obscure, that the seven ballets we see are not identified, it is one of the film’s strengths that no ‘main character’ is allowed to emerge. La Danse becomes a microcosm of the institution it depicts. The Paris Opera Ballet is an extremely hierarchical organization, from etoiles to corps de ballet, in which no star is larger than the shared project of continually living up to collective expectations of excellence. Brigitte Lefèvre, the Ballet’s able, compassionate and decisive Director of Dance and the closest thing to a protagonist, says as much at one point in the film.
More than any individual, the Palais Garnier itself comes to characterize the company. While it is one of very few buildings in the world to be known by the name of its auteur, what happens inside succeeds or fails based on the excellence of the institution rather than the glory of stars. In La Danse the Garnier is very much a working building, full of beige corridors and hidden attics, with every spare niche devoted to activities ranging from rehearsals to, on the roof, beekeeping. Wiseman populates the hidden multitudes revealed in the Musée d’Orsay model. The film could be criticized, as previous Wiseman films have been, for its relentlessly laconic style (or lack of style), but ultimately this quality of keenly observing detachment does manage to precisely describe what is unique about this institution in a way that no other approach could. And what is this immaterial entity, the Paris Opera Ballet? Most revealing is a scene near the end between Brigitte Lefèvre and an unnamed young dancer. The boss offers helpful advice and praise without the slightest hint of platitude. She advises the ballerina to work hard, but not just for its own sake, to observe other artists in the company and learn from them, and to focus on ce qu’on fait rather than ce qu’on ne fait pas. This advice may not seem to move the earth in itself, but it articulates an institutional philosophy which is demonstrated in every moment of the film. La Danse inevitably exists within a whole history of films in the ‘backstage’ genre. Accustomed to the flamboyant yelling and screaming in many of these films, one watches La Danse with the vague anticipation of a terminal conflict which never eventuates (one wayward male dancer is mildly chastised during a dress rehearsal, but the criticism is never personal). The excellence of the company seems to result from a consistently professional and supportive process, an atmosphere which without paradox combines intensity and calm.