No talking-heads, no archival footage, no title cards and no voice-over narration; for those unfamiliar with Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries, myself including, his simple, almost understated, approach to subjects in his documentaries are minimalist and refreshing. In LA DANSE – THE PARIS OPERA BALLET, Wiseman returns to a subject of particular predilection and indulgence: dance.
Like its documentary predecessors on the same subject matter – 95’s Ballet – LA DANSE – THE PARIS OPERA BALLET is a well-observed study on the background toil of an artistic institutional as it, almost unwillingly, succumbs to the necessary winds of contemporary change. For some, watching a documentary about ballet for an hour, let alone double that, would be wearisome, however, Wiseman’s vision is ever so charming and engaging that the 158-minute duration feels relatively brisk. From the numerous painstakingly thorough rehearsal scenes between dancers and choreographers to the beekeeper monitoring the honeycombs on the institute’s roof, Wiseman’s observations feel like the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, indiscriminately moving its gaze from one subject to another with a patient curiosity.
Whether the classical performances including Swan Lake or the contemporary renditions, particularly the hauntingly elegiac Medee, the dance footage are spectacular and strikingly contrasted against the backstage examinations with the ballet’s artistic director, or the mouse-like diligence of the seamstresses on costumes or the workmen plastering the ceiling. Wiseman is un-invasive and rightly allows the everyday transient moments within this institute speak for itself.
I’m far from being an elitist, but I’ve also long been charmed by the visual spectacle of a ballet performance, however, what Wiseman conveys is the grueling, physically strenuous work that goes into the seemingly seamless grace and chimera witnessed onstage; ballet dancers are not simply artists, they are athletics in their own right. With Wiseman’s simple observation, there is something immensely gratifying, encompassing the old adage, “The simplest things are often the truest”, everything LA DANSE is.
LA DANSE - THE PARIS OPERA BALLET Review
FILM SYNOPSIS - The film follows the production of seven ballets by the Paris Opera Ballet.