Frederick Wiseman’s latest doc was designed with the precision of an arabesque and contains a lesson on just how much precision an arabesque actually requires. Its crafting is clean, graceful, and effortless-looking. But La danse – Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris is the work of a master approaching the end of a long career — no errors, no indulgence, and not the kind of film that could be made without a high level of expertise. Glib comparisons between Wiseman’s film and its subject matter are made because the director himself makes those comparisons, or rather designs his project in such a way that one can’t help making them as La danse plays out. His documentary is, if not a celebration of professional excellence, a study of that excellence at close range and from every angle. Allowed into the boardrooms and rehearsal studios of one of the greatest ballet corps in the world, Wiseman uses his footage to suggest, with the faintest of strokes, that film and dance are equally the products of timing, position, and point of view.
Ultra-crisp establishing shots shift, in the film’s opening moments, from aerial views of Paris under a scrim-blue sky to the façade of the venerable Opéra. They bypass the building’s main interiors altogether and land in its subterranean tunnels. Combined, these shots remind us of the institution’s cultural significance and age (the ballet corps itself is even older), but Wiseman switches the scene almost immediately to a rehearsal studio, where two men practice a sensual pas-de-deux. This company, in other words — despite its history — is no longer your grandmother’s ballet. We’re taken from one studio to another, where dancers rehearse everything from The Nutcracker to an avant-garde adaptation of Medea. The classic and the contemporary are beautifully fused in the movements of dancers trained from infancy at the bar but adapted to the barefoot modern-dance calibrations of our own day. And if viewers mine this meandering study of the corps for nothing but its wondrous performances, they are still rewarded. Riveted to place, especially, by the modern pieces, but even the corps’ production of The Nutcracker (partially shown to us in the film’s last act) is impressive.
The warm architecture of bodies and choreography is framed by the cooler architecture of the Opéra’s bones; Wiseman makes the most of the structure’s cupolas, spiral stairs, and neo-Baroque windows as his camera moves from studio to office to wardrobe to sumptuous auditorium. We see that auditorium best not on opening night but after final curtain, as custodians vacuum the velour and ready the place for the next show. Wiseman sketches the corps like a hive, capturing its hierarchies and poking gentle fun at its officiousness, perhaps, when he films a beekeeper collecting combs from the Opéra’s rooftop apiary. The corps’ queen bee, dance director Brigitte Lefèvre, insists that their success depends on that quaint hierarchal homogeneity no longer in fashion today: everyone in first position, then second, everyone mastering the unforeseen demands of that same classical arabesque, everyone moving in tandem with others, working out their individual kinks as they flex. But any irony we might detect through Wiseman’s editing is vexed by his earnest thesis: that excellence is rarely possible without criticism, and that individuals often turn to organizations by necessity to improve. Lefèvre considers the corps, in its best guise, to be a “gift to the public” but it’s also an indispensable creative goldmine for ambitious dancers.
True to form, Wiseman provides no interviews or narration to orient us within that subtext, but the impact of focus and contrast is telling enough, like the impact of his editing, which he depends on to communicate point of view obliquely. Here and there he seems to be whispering that dance, like film, is an edited process, a sequence of building blocks strung together — scene by scene, or movement by movement — so that they can ultimately be observed as a single piece by an audience. And, typical of Wiseman’s non-expository docs (not to mention of film and dance in general), what we see is more revealing than what we are told. We witness a choreographer, on being interviewed about work style, spew inarticulate hot air. But a choreographer in studio generates perfect communication between his words and the bodies of his dancers; there is a term or metaphor for every gesture (or space between gestures) in the repertoire. The dancers seem to need their bodies to speak to one another—words on their own are inadequate. This is not a surprising act of substitution among those possessed of extraordinary physical intelligence, nor a surprising topic for wordless Wiseman himself. And communication relies in part on observation. One dancer is reminded that she can’t move the same way when she’s performing for an audience as she can when moving for her own pleasure. Surveillance has an altering effect (as the physicists have posited), and Wiseman’s film is a babushka doll of nested observation: dancers are watched by teachers, by other dancers, by an opening-night audience, by Wiseman’s camera, and ultimately by us, Wiseman’s own viewers.
These ruminations give La danse an intellectual scope, but what seems really to matter to Wiseman are the performances that enrapture us on aesthetic and emotional levels, and the way he can pull us out of them. He plays us like instruments with the simplest of plucks: the mood of a piece is broken by the sound of an instructor’s cough; the illusion of weightlessness is punctured when a dancer collapses, heaving, on the boards or literally dances herself into a corner and laughs. The corps exerts itself to give their performers a superhuman cast but Wiseman reinserts a human dimension into their project with his unobtrusive camera (which strikes us as almost out of space entirely thanks to the mirrored walls that reflect everything in studio but his crew). Subject matter here is perfectly married to form, or at least to filmmaker, for Wiseman’s clinical approach has the same crisp, practiced feel of the movements of a well-tuned dance pro. Both dancer and director make their difficult artistic tasks look easy, leaving us to benefit from their exertions.