La Danse “La Danse” photos courtesy of Zipporah Films, Inc.

La Danse Magnifique!

Frederick Wiseman's documentary illuminates Paris ballet

By Jana J. Monji 11/19/2009

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Frederick Wiseman’s fascinating and beautifully realized new documentary, “La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris,” begins quietly but slowly builds to give us an understanding of an institution and an art process.

The first words you hear are a mix of English and French. There are no explanations except by choreographers and instructors explaining to dancers what they want.  Wiseman isn’t interested in explanations or history as much as he is in the ballet troupe as a growing, surviving entity, making this a delight for balletomanes, dancers and creative artists. There are subtitles, but no passing titles to announce where we are or who we are with. As individuals, they aren’t as important as the institution in which they work. For that matter, words are less important than movement.

When the movie opens, we see Paris in early morning shot from above, then at street level. We travel lower, to the labyrinths beneath the building known as the Palais Garnier or the Opéra de Paris. Going down empty hallways and corridors, we see coils of ropes, a stairway where we hear music and voices, then see two young men rehearsing and, finally, a scene of the full class.

Wiseman, a former lawyer, is known for his interest in American institutional life. His last documentary was 2007’s “State Legislature,” which Nathan Lee of the Village Voice called “pretty darn wonky.” Happily, “La Danse” should find a larger audience.

Wiseman’s first documentary about a cultural institution was 1994’s “Ballet,” which followed the American Ballet Theatre from studio rehearsal in New York to a spring tour of Athens and Copenhagen. It was his 27th documentary and it featured Agnes DeMille, Alessandra Ferri, Susan Jaffe and Julio Bocca.

In “La Danse,” Wiseman returns to ballet with a respect tinged with reverence. The language barrier is less daunting here than in other foreign films, but appropriate for the context. Not all of the dancers understand French (beyond the ballet terms) or English, yet they must communicate. When British-born dancer and choreographer Wayne McGregor directs his ballet, “Genus,” he uses percussive sound, English and gestures to help the dancers comprehend what he wants. By the final stages of the ballet, his sound vocabulary could be a song in its own right.

Here, McGregor, the resident choreographer for Great Britain’s Royal Ballet, is working on a 24-dancer ballet inspired by Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species.” If you saw 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” in which he was the movement director, you’ve seen his work.

We also see Delphine Moussin developing her role of Medea as both dancer and actor — from movement to characterization. She is given things to build on and told to find the subtle line that barely separates a caress from a blow, for she knows her lover, Jason, has betrayed her.

The documentary follows the company through all aspects of developing performances of seven ballets: “Paquita” by Pierre Lacotte; “The Nutcracker” by Rudolf Nureyev; “Genus” by Wayne McGregor; “Medea” by Angelin Preljocaj; “The House of Bernarda Alba” by Mats Ek; “Romeo and Juliet” by Sasha Waltz; and “Orpheus and Eurydyce” by Pina Bausch. Scenes cover fundraising, costume design, classes, rehearsals and the performances.

Cinematographer John Davey is respectful and elegant. The meandering down below to the underground lake, labyrinth and cellars could be boring, but he makes them beautiful. If you’re wondering why those shots should be there, the Palais Garnier is best known today through 1909’s gothic novel by Gaston Leroux, “The Phantom of the Opera,” made into a musical of the same name by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Wisely, Wiseman doesn’t meander into romantic fantasy or even the troupe’s illustrious history. He focuses on the process of creation, communication and understanding, the workings of an institution and the struggles of individual artists, from top to bottom, to develop performances that do justice to the long (since 1661) tradition of the Paris Opera Ballet.

In “La Danse,” opening Friday at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 (French and English with English subtitles), pictures and movement are more important than words. This illuminating portrait is all about the process and the beauty created.

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