Review: Frederick Wiseman’s “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet”

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s 2009 film La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, is a typically rigorous institutional examination, this time of the famed Paris Opera Ballet, getting up close and personal behind the scenes, observing rehearsals, administrative meetings, and many other minutiae of the day-to-day activities of this venerable institution. There is nothing especially earth-shattering or revealing that happens during the course of this film; the closest we get is a meeting with the dance troupe and the ballet’s artistic director about changes in retirement and pension policy that the French government is considering. Neither does this film break with Wiseman’s tried-and-true methods of filmmaking: fly-on-the-wall observation, eschewing interviews with subjects, soundtrack music, or onscreen identification of the subjects. Wiseman holds true with the cinema vérité techniques he has been practicing since Titicut Follies, his 1967 debut. He is less interested in personalities and drama than in process, procedure, and daily institutional life. This film focuses on lengthy, unhurried (La Danse clocks in at 158 minutes) and thorough observation of all the workers at the opera, from the dancers, choreographers, and administrative personnel, down to the cafeteria workers and janitors. Wiseman even gives us some shots of the basement and sewers underneath the opera house, as if to show us just how complete his document of this building is.

The heart of the film is the lengthy rehearsals of the opera repertory shows. These lithe, wiry dancers painstakingly perfect their movements, and under their trainers, refine everything down to the very smallest detail. And while the repetitive scenes of this process can at times be a bit wearying, it is still fascinating to watch, all of it happening at an intimate level that very few of us are privileged to witness in person. Behind the scenes, there are some telling moments that impress upon us the extreme physical demands ballet puts on a person’s body. One older dancer relates to the festival director her concerns that she is being scheduled for too many performances that will tax her physical abilities. “I’m not 25 anymore,” the dancer opines. This scene contrasts with another near the conclusion, in which a young, fresh-faced newcomer to the company gets advice from the festival director. “Don’t be afraid,” the director advises her.  All in all, La Dance: The Paris Opera Ballet is an interesting (if overlong) entry in Wiseman’s impressive body of work.