BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 28, 2009
La Danse: Le Ballet de L’Opéra de Paris
Frederick Wiseman’s new film about the Paris Opera Ballet begins with a building. In a series of staccato shots that follow one after another like a silent slide show, we move from an overview of Paris into the streets of the city until we find ourselves squarely in front of the Palais Garnier, the ornate nineteenth-century theater where the company performs. The next image is a shock. From this light-filled, outdoor Parisian world we suddenly find ourselves in a dark underground tunnel: we are in the catacombs and the bowels of the theater. The “slides” continue, still in silence: shots of dimly lit backstage areas with ancient-looking pulleys, cranks, pillars, and ropes neatly wound on the floor as if on an old ship’s deck. The weight and the age of the theater’s physical plant is palpable. Then we see a hallway, hear music, and Wiseman cuts to a rehearsal studio where dancers are taking class.
What follows is an engrossing and unconventional documentary essay on the art of dance. Wiseman gives us no obvious plot, no narrator, and no music other than that which goes with the dances. We move, ghost-like, around the theater: from studio to stage to costume shop, canteen, and administrative offices--always passing through the old hallways and winding staircases that join them. Ballet, he makes us feel, is a place and an institution as much as it is an art. Occasionally we re-emerge onto the streets, bleary-eyed, to glimpse the theater lobby or to travel to the Bastille Opera House, the company’s second (and garishly modern) home, but the film’s heart lies inside the Palais Garnier. We are there for nearly three hours, enclosed in the heavy stone walls of a tradition.
La Danse is the only film I know that successfully conveys what it feels like, physically, to be a dancer--to get inside a step or a phrase and to make it work on your own body--but also to live, as dancers do, absorbed in the repetitive, ritualized, and seemingly timeless practices of their art. None of this is monkish or self-sacrificing, as it is often portrayed. It is simply what dancers do: it is their work. (When I was myself a dancer I was always surprised when people marveled at the discipline of dancers: that, it seemed to me, was utterly unremarkable--a given.) Wiseman studiously avoids backstage gossip and competitive tensions, and says nothing about injuries, nerves, divas, casting sheets. He never indulges high-drama tantrums or celebrity worship: he does not even give us the names or the ranks of the dancers, nor does he identify Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera’s formidable director of dance. We do not know exactly who these people are, we only see the work they are doing.
Wiseman’s past films signal his approach. Many of his films, beginning with Titicut Follies in 1967, which documented life in a prison for the criminally insane, have focused on difficult social issues and the institutions that address (and perpetuate) them: films such as Welfare, Public Housing, Basic Training. Wiseman has said that he is interested in work and what constitutes it. In 1995 he turned to--of all things--dance, and made Ballet about the American Ballet Theater, a close (and very long) study of the work of a ballet company. Yet the film--like the American tradition that it documented--had a freewheeling and relaxed rhythm that made it feel diffuse; it lacked the intensity of the art that it described. La Danse, by contrast, goes straight to the source: the Paris Opera is where ballet formally began. Founded by Louis XIV in 1669, it is a centralized national institution with an unbroken tradition.
It is not that Wiseman gives us a history. He doesn’t have to do so; it is all there in the art. The dancers may have sleek twenty-first-century bodies, but they inhabit an archaic society based on hierarchy and patronage: this is perhaps the only surviving court art in our hyper-modern age. It requires, as Molière once noted of Louis XIV’s theatrical ventures, “an army” of artisans--dressers, costume designers, seamstresses, makeup artists, painters, lighting technicians, cooks, ballet masters. Costumes are still sewn by hand, sequin by sequin, and toe shoes (dozens of them) are carefully sprayed, one by one, with the appropriate dye and hung to dry. Fabrics are dipped and stirred in great vats of color; lighting engineers painstakingly set each cue; painters plaster and re-paint the timeworn walls; and all the while dancers labor at their craft. The food in the canteen--presented to us fully plated in still-life close-up shots--looks as if it had been served that way for centuries.
Life inside this theater is self-sufficient and all-consuming. The dancers work, eat, dress, and perform in this still very nineteenth-century world. None of this is romanticized by Wiseman. Indeed, in one striking scene toward the end of the film he shows us a cleaner, alone, tidying the plush red-velvet and gold-gilt house after a performance. He is black--one of the only black people we have seen (except the painters)--and a reminder of the France outside the theater. We are made to wonder if “apart” is not also “cut off.”
La Danse pays meticulous attention to the details of the art. Thus we watch a dancer struggle to master a single step (we are not told that she is an étoile, a “star” at the pinnacle of the Paris Opera hierarchy). She goes after it over and over again, with the ballet master and her partner coaching her, but she cannot seem to get it. Her body just can’t feel it. Finally her partner muses that “she imagines an arabesque where there is none.” Immediately we understand: she has to change her physical mind, shift her body’s thinking, in order to internalize the step. Figuring out how to do this takes some time, and we are made to feel the consuming repetition and the long hours that go into even the tiniest refinements in a dance. Wiseman offsets this concentrated technical analysis with images of languid stretching, and we sense the way in which dancers are always in their bodies, always aware and feeling them, even when they are not controlling them: the stretching is like the body daydreaming or doodling. At one point we get an extended shot of dancers’ feet--only the feet--which reminded me of the games that dancers like to play, such as identifying a colleague exclusively by the distinctive shape of her instep.
If Wiseman takes us inside the physicality of ballet, he also evokes its wispy ethereality. All theaters are haunted--with memories, past performances, yesterday’s dancers. Thus instead of walking his camera (and us) smoothly through the theater, Wiseman cuts from a dancer in a class to an empty room to a patch of light to a staircase; or from a staircase to a hallway to a studio. This might sound a bit arty, but it is not at all: the staccato rhythm and the visual disjuncture make us feel that we are appearing suddenly--invisibly--around the theater and in the dancers’ midst. (How did we get from the staircase to the hallway?) It is like a child’s trick: we see, but we are not seen.
In an art form with no standardized notation--no scores or scripts--the way that ballets are passed on from one generation to the next is vital, and Wiseman is not afraid to show us the process in all of its technical detail. Thus two older coaches working with a younger dancer disagree at some length over whether a dancer’s heels should drop fully to the floor when she bends her knees before a jump (more power), or whether they should remain raised a fraction of an inch from the floor (more agility and speed). If this sounds like hairsplitting--or shoptalk--it is not. Wiseman has chosen carefully. The “heels raised” approach was first introduced by Balanchine, and denotes a modernist orientation, whereas “heels down” points to a more traditional nineteenth-century manner. It is a debate that has been re-enacted in dance studios for decades. The coaches know this. They carry out the argument with consummate ease, each knowing exactly what the other will say but saying it nonetheless, because it still matters: what the younger dancers decide is one of many details that shape the future of the art.
The dancers in La Danse are like dancers everywhere: verbally reticent, often painfully so, but possessed of a striking physical confidence and ease. The company’s youngest dancers in particular appear childlike and timid. They do not talk much, and when they do they are self-effacing. No one thinks this odd, and in ballet it is not: deference is implicit in the art. Watching them, however, we realize that it is they, and not their coaches or an older generation, who stand for tradition and conservatism. These young people do not question their superiors or the tradition that is being bequeathed to them. On the contrary: in one of the film’s most striking moments, we observe an exasperated Brigitte Lefèvre urging her staff to push young dancers to experiment with new styles and techniques--to be more radical. Partly this is Lefèvre, who reached her prime in the 1960s and was an unusually bold and innovative artist, but it is also a general point. Young dancers everywhere want to dance the toughest, most technically demanding virtuosic roles. For this reason, the challenges of contemporary works, which often move against the classical grain, are less appealing. It is ballet’s youth that now anchors it in the past.
What about the choreography? Wiseman shows the tremendous range demanded of dancers today: from the raw athleticism of the British choreographer Wayne McGregor to the ornate lyricism and carnivalesque spectacle of The Nutcracker or Paquita. We get extended excerpts of these dances, mostly shot (I think) from the first wing. But these are not like the excerpts in other documentaries or films. They are not snippets or reminders, but improvements: many of the dances that Wiseman shows us--and this is especially true for the more modern works--are better on film, certainly on this film, than they are live.
The reason is that Wiseman gives them a context and a history that they do not themselves possess. Consider Le Songe de Médée, choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj. We watch a dancer rehearsing the role, crawling forward and pulling her body heavily along the floor behind her (we don’t know this is from Medée until later). At another point in the film we see a dancer discussing the role (we still don’t know which) with a ballet master who reassures her that the performance will carry her, that she will find the role once the music, the costumes, and the spattered blood are real on stage. The dance, he says, has its own internal momentum and will build, step by step. Then we see the performance up close from the wings: the rehearsals rush to mind and “synch” with the dance, adding layers and depth. We are left with the astonishing feeling that Wiseman has re-assembled all the elements and thereby re-choreographed the dance, and also strengthened it by inserting it into a tradition and giving us visual images--and memories--that live performance precludes.
Wiseman is not the only one using film to try to make ballet today better than it is. Christopher Wheeldon, copying Britain’s Ballet Boyz, has taken to prefacing performances with rehearsal footage and quaint scenes from the lives of dancers. But that is very different: Wheeldon’s clips do little to bring us closer to the dance. They are distractions that pull our attention away from the ballet and towards the personality of the dancer--more solipsism than illumination. Wiseman does the opposite. By cutting from unidentified rehearsals with unidentified dancers to an unidentified performance, he focuses our attention purely on the dances themselves. There is no clutter of personality; just the dancer and the dance. The result is a film that allows us to know ballet and dancers more intimately than we may ever have known them, because we know the work they do.
Wiseman has called La Danse a “love letter” to ballet, and so it is. But it is also more. It is the film that ballet modernists have been waiting for: detached, controlled, at moments ironic. Wiseman does not shy away from artifice. Lest we be fooled, he distilled La Danse from some 130 hours of film shot over twelve weeks, and spent many months editing, crafting--choreographing--its sequences and montage. Nor does he mistake artifice for ornament, seeing it instead as a tool for getting to the truth--and for creating, as he has described his work, “reality fictions.” These “fictions” have nothing to do with the romanticized or melodramatic ballet of popular imagining; they are simply ballet the way it is now, for dancers. But--and this is the point--Wiseman’s single-minded focus on the craft and the inner workings of dance does not in any way trivialize or diminish the art. Ballet is all the more elevated and noble because of it. George Balanchine, to whom I imagine this film owes a debt, liked to say to his dancers of audiences, “they look but they do not see, so we must show them.” Now Wiseman has shown them, too.
Jennifer Homans is the dance critic of The New Republic.