Frederick Wiseman is an American institution, albeit an invisible one. Every few years, he adds to his formidable body of documentary work, slipping, apparently unnoticed, into environments ranging from hospital wards to housing projects, and returning with unblemished portraits of life within. Wiseman’s latest subject is the Paris Opera Ballet, whose roots go back more than 400 years.
As is characteristic of his method, Wiseman minimizes his presence, both on- and offscreen. There are no interviews, no captions, and few contextual clues as to which of the seven ballets featured in various stages of rehearsal is being performed at any given moment. (The Nutcracker excerpts are gimmes, though.) Even for Wiseman, the results can be tough going for those not versed in opera; La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet lacks the underlying drama of Wiseman’s Domestic Violence, or the revelatory moments of Near Death. It’s clear Wiseman feels privileged to observe the dancers at work, and sometimes seems content to stop at that. The effect is like wandering around the Paris Opera’s opulent Palais Garnier and periodically peering into studios and office spaces, only fitfully gaining insight into how ideas spawned in rehearsal translate into a finished dance, or what impact decisions made on the business side have on the dancers themselves.
As with any arts institution, tensions abound. At one meeting, ballet director Brigitte Lefèvre goes back and forth with a development associate who wants to arrange access for a group of high-dollar American donors (including defunct financial giant Lehman Brothers), and the entire corps de ballet is gathered for an update on the government’s plan to adjust retirement benefits, which for dancers kick in at age 40. But the variety of choreography, ranging from Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker to Angelin Preljocaj’s blood-spattered Le Songe De Médée indicate a company trying to keep pace with modern audiences while still drawing blue-haired donors.
At a shade over two and a half hours, La Danse is compact by Wiseman’s standards, and it feels much shorter, gracefully flowing from ballerinas en pointe to construction workers patching cracks in the ceiling. If there were more of the latter, the former might be even more intoxicating.