I must confess that I am not a fan of ballet: I have only seen a few live performances and the wonderfully daggy film Centre Stage. In fact, prior to viewing Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, I had never even heard of The Paris Opera Ballet – as it turns out, one of the world’s premier ballet companies. However, I do love ‘backstage musicals’ – the toil leading to a finale performance – and had naively thought, going in to La Danse, that this would be the way in for a viewer ignorant of the finer points of ballet.
Wiseman is a prolific documentarian of varied subjects and La Danse, like all of his films from Ticitut Follies (1967) to State Legislature (1997), features no overt stylistic manipulation of the reality of the situation he is attempting to ‘capture’. La Dance is a ‘fly on the wall’ film. Apart from the editing, Wiseman has avoided all cinematic devices that might overtly guide the viewer, such as interviews or authoritative voice-overs – and there is certainly no expressive manipulation of the natural laws of time and space. This observational style allows for the viewer to feel as though they are simply watching the ballet company at work. However, the detached style also means that we do not get under the skin of any of the people concerned – we merely watch them as they go about their work in the ballet company. In this way, the film’s fly on the wall style creates a certain distance between the people depicted onscreen and the filmgoer: for long periods of the time we witness cycles of rehearsals and meetings while learning little about the people involved in them.
The first third of La Danse is intriguing, showing the repetitive grind necessary to make a performance appear effortless onstage: an illusion made possible only by the uniquely trained body of the ballet dancer. Featuring lengthy sequences of dancers in rehearsals going over movements and gestures again and again, La Danse depicts the ballet dancer as physical machine. Pointing their toes to nearly 180 degrees while springing delicately from the floor, sinewy muscles criss-crossing reedy shoulders, and thin arms with more undulations than most bike riders’ calves – the rippling physique of the ballet dancer pushes the human body’s kinaesthetic potential to its limits. The virtuosic body of the ballet dancer itself, with its dexterity and difference, is a beguiling sight to behold.
La Danse provides glimpses not just of the dancers in rehearsal and onstage, but also of the company’s artistic director, the brilliant choreographers and, most fascinatingly, the costume designers who work in the bowels of the building. Glances in the costume department are very brief though and, because of the vérité style of the film, no detail is given beyond what is intimated in the tasks we observe them silently performing. Although this lack of further information is incredibly frustrating – I felt like screaming, but who are these quiet, methodical people? – it is, perhaps, one of the film’s strengths: encouraging viewers to ponder the unknown lives of these people beyond the frame. With their personalities inferred only in the particular way they might stitch or dye a garment, in the brief moments we bear witness to them, these ephemeral people are both mysterious and captivating.
La Danse is certainly not a populist film; this is not its intention. It rejects a traditional ‘cause and effect’ narrative structure and does not rely on stylistic devices commonly used to maintain viewers’ interest or intrigue – it observes rather than shows. This is not problematic in itself, but does require a viewer who has some prior interest in the highly specific nature of the film’s subject – the workings of a successful ballet company. For while the figure of the ballet dancer is initially fascinating – the sheer physical brilliance of elite athletes evokes a similar sense of wonder – and so too is the behind-the-scenes rigours of ‘putting on a show’; a lack of understanding of ballet may make it difficult to truly appreciate this film. Nonetheless, La Danse is a beautiful example of sparse filmmaking, its observational style providing unique glimpses into the multifaceted and enigmatic world of professional ballet. In the end, these disparate moments successfully merge to depict a group of people who, in their different roles, are all motivated by a singular obsession – to create works of art that are of the highest possible standard.
Kate Harper studied cinema at The University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.