La Danse (Le Ballet de Opera de Paris)
Veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman specialises in capturing bodies caught up in a process of metamorphosis. In Titicut Follies he gave us the contortions of psychiatric patients and in Highschool, the awkward gestures of the adolescent. In La Danse, Wiseman returns to familiar territory (the American Ballet Theatre is also the subject of his film Ballet made in 1993). He takes us inside the hallowed halls of the world-renowned Paris Opera Ballet and offers the viewer a privileged insight into the hard-won flawlessness of the ballet dancer’s body. He captures both the obsessive perfectionism of the dancers in rehearsal and the indefinable, fleeting magic of those intense moments spent on stage. Wiseman is also a director interested in power, politics and machinations within institutions and hierarchies and La Danse is classic Wiseman. The viewer is taken into the artistic director’s meetings with sponsors, corporate clients and disgruntled dancers. Every element of this organisation is observed in close detail – even the cleaners.
La Danse is at once the most intimate film Wiseman has made, as well as his most grand and sublime. The ease with which the director moves from ballet as ‘business’ to dance as ‘art form’ is the mark of a filmmaker working at the top of his game.
The film is both epic in length and scope. Viewers who are unfamiliar with Wiseman’s non-didactic approach to documentary filmmaking (notoriously, this director has always eschewed patronising ‘voice-overs’) may be thrown off-balance by his privileging of the powers of observation. Which is to say that this is intelligent filmmaking and Wiseman is respectful of his audience: he gives us the tools to look anew at both the banal and extraordinary, but does not dictate what we must or should think about what we see.
La Danse is also, arguably, the most beautiful of Wiseman’s films; a pas de deux set to the accompaniment of a single cello provides a memorable tingle up the spine for this viewer.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Mon 3-Sun 9 May.