La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009)
A scene from “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,” a documentary filmed at the Palais Garnier.
November 4, 2009
Creating Dialogue From Body Language
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: November 4, 2009
In “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,” his 36th documentary in more than 40 years, Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into the stately and elegant Palais Garnier in Paris, observing rehearsals, staff meetings and, finally, performances of seven dances, including classics like “The Nutcracker” and spiky new work by younger choreographers. To say that the film, sumptuous in its length and graceful in its rhythm, is a feast for ballet lovers is to state the obvious and also to sell Mr. Wiseman’s achievement a bit short. Yes, this is one of the finest dance films ever made, but there’s more to it than that.
More About This Movie
You might as well say that his previous documentary, the enthralling three-and-a-half-hour “State Legislature,” is a must-see for devotees of Idaho politics. It certainly is, but its greater virtue, and the substance of Mr. Wiseman’s particular genius, is the way it transfixes you with the inner workings of an institution you may not otherwise care about. The observation of groups of people functioning in a clearly defined professional or social context has been Mr. Wiseman’s primary interest ever since his first film, “Titicut Follies,” which exposed the workings of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts.
The Paris Opera Ballet is of course a more exalted place than either the Boise Statehouse or that grim New England penitentiary — its dancers are certainly easier on the eyes than legislators or social workers — but the quality of Mr. Wiseman’s attention is the same. His curiosity is boundless but also disciplined, and he foregoes explanation in favor of a visual version of what anthropologists call thick description.
In “La Danse” you watch closely as dancers and choreographers break complex movements down into their constituent gestures, a process that is at once tedious and entirely engrossing. Though all the rehearsing culminates in full-dress performance, “La Danse” really has no beginning, middle or end. It is, rather, about two kinds of time that exist outside traditional narrative frameworks: the long, slow, repetitive cycle in which institutions exist, and the fleeting moments of bodily motion and musical expression that make ballet such a singular and elusive art form.
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