The documentary La Danse opens not with ballerinas but with a series of static shots of the innards of the building in which they rehearse and perform: coiled wires, cracked plaster, sturdy columns. Eventually Frederick Wiseman’s camera moves on, intermittently, to the dancers, but the same coolly observational aesthetic remains as the film cuts about the Palais Garnier. It’s as though an alien has floated down to study the Paris Opera Ballet, indiscriminately taking in everything from the dancers, choreographers, and artistic director to the costume makers, cafeteria cashiers, fundraisers, maintenance workers, and even the beekeeper (?) who manages the hives (?) on the roof.
As bizarre and unexpected as the beekeeping sequence is, it does seem to suggest Wiseman’s outlook on his subject: that it is abuzz with disparate activity that nonetheless builds toward a single goal. That’s a romantic notion rendered with paradoxical dispassion—and I don’t find it particularly convincing, if that’s even what the directed intended. Regardless, the effect is both mesmerizing and frustrating.
Wiseman’s detached, unnarrated style reminds me of wandering through a museum without a guide—my preference, as it happens. I like to experience the exhibits on my own terms. But when I find something that particularly interests me, that I want to know more about, I stop and read, and Wiseman’s documentary provides no such mechanism. He might want to keep sailing on, alien and aloof, but I want to know more—who is this choreographer? who wrote this music? is that one of the principal ballerinas? is this repertory or a new work?—and La Danse never accommodates that desire. The woman next to me and I sat through the entire closing credits, desperate to learn who had choreographed an obscure ballet we found especially compelling, only to have the attribution pass us quickly by in small type we couldn’t read. (I later found the information I wanted on the Internet—all glory be to Google!) I only hope that if and when Wiseman creates a DVD for his documentary, he packs it with data—details on every single scene—for people who want to know what, exactly, they’re watching.
I doubt he will, though, because I suspect that’s not how he wants us to watch La Danse. Providing further context or, worse, allowing viewers to skip directly to the dance sequences (which, I confess, is what I do with Robert Altman’s The Company, a fictional movie featuring Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet but similar in style to La Danse) would spoil the fly-on-the-wall perspective. And I do value that. The scenes with artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre are invariably fascinating, whether she is placating an aging prima ballerina, negotiating perks for top donors, tangling with French labor law, or consulting with a prospective guest choreographer. In many of these cases, context would be distracting. The intense fundraising scene, for example, takes a strange, darkly comic turn when we learn that the development officers plan to target Lehman Brothers. At the showing I attended, the entire theater burst into raucous, slightly mean-spirited laughter. Our foreknowledge distracted from the subtleties of Lefèvre’s bargaining. The coming demise of Lehman Brothers is beside the point of the scene, and so too, perhaps, are the identities of the artists beside Wiseman’s point.
But damn that denied information is tantalizing. La Danse is a long documentary, and we spend considerable time viewing rehearsals, and it’s fascinating. In one scene, we watch an English-speaking choreographer communicate with French-speaking dancers through a hodgepodge of ballet vocabulary (a plié is always a plié), translated instruction, mime, and, most amusing, wordless sounds, describing the mood and texture of the dance with ungainly scat singing. Great scene—perfect on its own, I admit—but would quick little subtitles telling us the names of the participants and the music and the ballet kill Wiseman?
And with many ballets, we see rehearsals but not the performances—why not?—or, conversely, the performances but not the rehearsals, which surely would have be interesting. (I would have loved to see what went into that bleak number in which the dancers, dressed in prim Puritan black, leap onto a long table and wail aloud.) At least Wiseman deigns to show us different stages, including the finished product, of my favorite work, the object of my Googling: choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Songe de Médée, with ballerina Emilie Cozette as the filicidal Medea of Greek myth. The dancing is artfully anguished, culminating with a devastating abstract depiction of the murders. Cozette is mesmerizing, wielding her body like a force of nature and bringing pathos to even a small turn of her wrist. (There is, in fact, a whole conversation about how she should turn out her hand at the end, though I don’t know whether that’s Preljocaj or someone else coaching Cozette because Wiseman didn’t tell me! Aaa!)
In the end, I’m simply more interested in the dancing than the scenes depicting the nitty-gritty of activity at Palais Garnier. But Wiseman didn’t make a “ballet movie,” per se, for people like me. His scope is wider than that, and I can respect that and admire the documentary he did make. I’m glad I saw it his way—it’s gorgeous. But let’s be honest: When La Danse comes out on DVD, I’m going to buy it, look up all the pertinent data, and skip directly to the dancing, like I do with The Company. The beekeeper is cool and all, but I want to see Le Songe de Médée and the other ballets. Screw the rest.