The Institution is Immaterial: Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse

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.

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