Having read in the NYT that Frederick Wiseman’s “La Danse” was one of the “finest dance films ever made,” I was set up for disappointment. What the movie has to offer is a sequence of beautifully-shot scenes of Paris Opera Ballet dancers rehearsing repertory. It gives you, literally, a top-to-bottom view of the Paris Opera Ballet, showing a rooftop bee-keeper and fish swimming in flooded underground passages. You get glimpses of people serving food in the cafeteria, seamstresses sewing ornaments on tutus, a janitor mopping the theater. The intention, no doubt, is to make you feel like you are there. The film certainly conjures up a sense of place but, unfortunately, it lacks coherence and narrative thrust.
Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall technique of filmmaking purposefully omits context or interviews to ground the footage. The film flits between rehearsals of–we find out in the closing credits–Genus by Wayne McGregor, Le Songe de Medée by Angelin Preljocaj, La Maison de Bernarda by Mats Ek, Paquita by Pierre Lacotte, Casse-Noisette (Nutcracker) by Rudolph Noureev, Orphée and Eurydice by Pina Bausch, and Romeo and Juliette by Sasha Waltz. With such a hodgepodge of choreography on view, it’s hard to get a serious take of any one work. For a while, it seems “La Danse” is showing us each work’s progression from studio to stage, but that cliche narrative of the dance-documentary goes only partially fulfilled. After two plus hours, the film ends, wearingly, with the dancers back in rehearsal.
Some of the more intriguing bits feature the company’s Artistic Director, Brigitte Lefevre. We witness her in meetings, offering encouragement and praise to dancers, discussing casting with a visiting choreographer and entertaining ideas from a public relations team. Throughout, she presents an articulate and compassionate persona. While there are hints that there might be political tensions below the surface–as in a company-wide meeting regarding pension benefits–Wiseman resists expose. We are left with the impression that the Paris Opera Ballet is a well-managed, humane if hierarchical, operation. As there’s not much conflict on view, there’s not much drama either. The pleasure of “La Danse” resides solely in watching exceptional performers practice their craft.