Frederick Wiseman, the master of the lapidary, fly-on-the-wall mega-documentary, trains his camera on the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera, one of the world’s finest, in “La Danse,” and while the result may appeal especially to fanciers of the art, it should hold the attention even of non-devotees. It can serve as a European counterpart to his 1995 film “Ballet,” on the American Ballet Theater.
At a mere 158 minutes, “La Danse” is shorter than many of the films Wiseman has been producing for four decades, but the running-time allows him to introduce us not only to the demanding effort required of both choreographers like Pierre Lacotte, Angelin Preljocaj and Wayne McGregor and the company dancers to develop, through long and arduous hours of rehearsal, the precise movements that add up to a finished work, but also to the insistent behind-the-scene efforts of the artistic director (Brigitte Lefevre) to manage the staff, keep up standards and maintain financial stability (a sequence that shows her and an aide talking to the dancers about negotiations with the government about contracts is especially telling). And occasionally Wiseman’s camera will venture into the building’s byways to observe the seamstresses, the carpenters, the maintenance staff, the cafeteria workers, and even a beekeeper on the roof of the opera house. (Happily, however, no masked phantom makes an appearance.)
As usual, Wiseman’s film suggests that a noncommittal, strictly observational documentary ethos is operative, but though he allows no intrusive narration or explanatory titles, the idea that what we’re seeing is somehow accidental is nonsense. “La Danse” involves continual directorial choices, not merely about what to film (with the considerable aid of cinematographer John Davey) but what to include and in what order (with editor Valerie Pico collaborating with him).
And there is a narrative arc that proceeds from initial rehearsal to final performance, with three items of the 2008 repertoire—Preljocaj’s “Medee,” McGregor’s “Genus” and a “Nutcracker”—the focus. The result is a work that for all its deferential detachment is actually as deeply involved as any fictional drama. And a subtle one, in that one is left to infer attitudes and motivations from the hints that the individual dancers and staffers provide in their ostensibly off-handed remarks.
That’s what makes “La Danse,” like so many of Wiseman’s efforts, challenging as well as informative. It’s a strong addition to an already impressive body of work.