La Danse opens Friday at the Carolina Theatre
The 79-year-old Frederick Wiseman is one of the most important figures in the history of documentary filmmaking. He's also the most austere, least commercially ambitious among his great peers, D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, The War Room), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.; Fallen Champ: The Story of Mike Tyson) and David and Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter). Wiseman's early landmark film, Titicut Follies, exposed the horrific conditions inside a Massachusetts facility for the criminally insane and was subsequently suppressed by the state. Over the ensuing four decades, he's made films on such disparate topics as public housing, domestic violence, a fishing village in Maine, a state legislature, and many more, garnering a reputation for epic run times along the way.
La Danse finds Wiseman operating in a somewhat brisk fashion, meaning that the film is only 158 minutes long. (Don't let the length be an impediment: As with all successful long movies, you don't really want it to end.) As usual with Wiseman, we're not given a conventional narrative with characters and a conflict. Instead, we experience and observe life in a complex institution. The action of the film oscillates between the two buildings that serve as a home for the opera: the grand but dilapidated 19th-century Palais Garnier and the sleek, modern Bastille Opera. The former building is the setting for rehearsals, with a half-dozen choreographers working with members of the company on dances in a variety of styles, while we see the finished product in the latter facility. Dance experts may recognize some stars, including the Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and the prima ballerina (or "l'étoile," the star) Aurélie Dupont, but Wiseman doesn't nudge you and point. Instead, we simply watch professionals work at their craft.
Unlike what we've come to expect from American reality talent shows and Broadway documentaries, like the recent Every Little Step, there's no manufactured drama, no tears and tantrums, no interviewing hopeful young dancers on the eve of their big audition. In La Danse, we're watching grown-ups. The variations in their personalities are sometimes subtle and sometimes striking, with choreographers coaxing, pleading, flattering and snapping—one uses techniques borrowed from Method acting—to achieve the results they want.
Wiseman is generous, too, with showing the finished product of each rehearsed piece we see, but there's none of the clichéd buildup to the big premiere: Instead, without fanfare we get glorious, entrancing passages of some of the world's best dancers performing dances in a variety of styles, inspired by such textual mainstays as Romeo and Juliet, Orpheus and Eurydice and Medea (the last one, terrifyingly choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, employs buckets of blood and actual children). We also see that the Paris Opera, like every other opera company on the planet, performs The Nutcracker.
Wiseman is also keenly interested in the activity behind the scenes. We see the work that goes into maintaining the crumbling Palais Garnier, and we see numerous glimpses of the company's costumers at work in their shop. The closest the film comes to zeroing in on a personality is its interest in scenes involving the company's artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre, a commanding figure who wields authority over all aspects of the operation. In one scene, she gently lays down the law to a guest choreographer about the manner in which he can work with the company dancers; in another, she hears out the diplomatically phrased complaints of an overworked veteran dancer; and, in a slyly funny sequence, she negotiates with a tour operator over what special access can be provided for a group of very wealthy American tourists.
There is also a labor dispute going on in France during the making of the film (when isn't there labor unrest in France?), and at one point, a company official gives a rambling address to the dancers, alluding to the fact that dancers retire from their professions a good 25 years before most other people. We're told that the meeting will include questions from the dancers, and I very much hoped that Wiseman would take this opportunity to give them a voice outside of an artistic context. Instead, for some reason he cuts away. It's my only (slight) disappointment with the film.
Wiseman's brand of documentary making has—unfortunately—fallen out fashion. Today's documentary filmmakers are much more concerned about Hollywood-style story structure and character arc, even at the cost of simplifying or distorting reality. Although there have been some good films made this way, there have also been some unfortunate "documentaries" over the past few years that bear all the hallmarks of a director and editor forcing the material into a pleasing, essentially fictional narrative. By contrast, Wiseman's La Danse is a valuable restorative, an invigorating splash of cold water that re-engages us with one of the greatest masters of documentary filmmaking. And, for those who don't much care one way or another about documentary aesthetics ... well, the dancing in this film is phenomenal.