Capturing the dance behind the dance

By Bernadette Rae

Frederick Wiseman's  La Danse  goes inside the sumptuous old home of the Paris Opera Ballet. Photo / Supplied
Frederick Wiseman's La Danse goes inside the sumptuous old home of the Paris Opera Ballet. Photo / Supplied

There are two stars in movie maker Frederick Wiseman's magnificent study of the Paris Opera Ballet, an art world institution which can trace its beginnings to the 17th century and the Academie Royale de Danse created by Louis XIV.

The first is its sumptuous home. In his opening shots, the camera's eye caresses the curves of ancient stone catacombs, lying deep below the plushly velveted theatre space of the Palais Garnier opera house. Wiseman lingers lovingly over coils of rope in a deserted, underground corridor. He returns again and again throughout the two hours, 40 minutes of the film's duration, to re-examine the beautiful bones of the building from yet another angle, to explore its light-filled rehearsal spaces in moments of stillness. The Marc Chagall ceiling in the main auditorium and other Byzantine splendours take their gilded and complex bows. Outside, the brown rooftops of the rest of Paris are spread all around.

The second star is the life force, the hierarchical living tradition that inhabits this worshipped place.

In the manner of all his considerable body of work - La Danse is Wiseman's 38th movie in a career span of 40 years - the image and its natural sound accompaniment is all. So choreographers choreograph, dancers dance, artistic directors direct and works unfold without any identification or label.

"What should I do?" Wiseman demands, when questioned on this method. "If I put names and titles all over everything, I would ruin the film. People who know the dancers already know and for people who don't know them, it won't mean anything anyway. And where would I stop?"

He has, he takes pains to point out, provided all that information in the credits at the end of La Danse.

(For those who would like a brief clue to what they are seeing before they see those credits include dancers Nicolas Le Riche, Marie-Agnes Gillot and Agnes Letestu, among others, performing in seven ballets: Genus by Wayne McGregor, Paquita by Pierre Lacotte, The Nutcracker by Rudolph Nureyev, Medea by Angelin Preljocaj, The House of Bernarda Alba by Mats Ek, Romeo and Juliet by Sasha Waltz and Orpheus and Eurydyce by Pina Bausch.)

Born in 1930, in Boston, Massachusetts, Wiseman trained as a lawyer before embarking on his documentary making career. He has focused on social institutions - a hospital, a high school, a welfare centre, a police precinct - and it has mostly been aired on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Now just a few weeks short of 81 and still hard at work editing his 39th movie, Wiseman views his work as "natural history", an enduring record of contemporary, and predominantly, American life.

"Future generations will have that, an immediate knowledge of what life was like in our time," he says. "I would love to be able to see how a hospital ran in the Civil War, how the New York Police Department operated in 1820."

From that perspective specific identifications are less important than the broader realities uncovered, and Wiseman's hugely feted success is rooted in his ability to portray the drama behind the drama of a singular event and individual personality.

When filming, he says, he is working "journalistically" but his editing process is "novelistic". And if that challenges the classification of what he does as "documentary" he makes no apologies.

He vehemently dislikes labels like "observational cinema" or "film verite." "Movies!" he says. "I make movies."

For La Danse he shot 150 hours of film over a 12-week period. A regular visitor to the Paris Opera Ballet - he lives several months a year in France - he simply walked in and asked the artistic director, feisty Brigitte Lefevre.

Wiseman seems to have had remarkably free access to the inner machinations of the company. Negotiations for a retirement age of 40 years for dancers, visits to a dubious looking cafeteria, wardrobe and laundry and a beekeeper working on the roof are interspersed with intimate display of endless rehearsals, the sweaty and bleeding side of ballet's beating heart.

The unedited film segments are literal, Wiseman says, natural and true. It is in his editing, his choice of segments, that gives the work its abstract and metaphorical meaning.

Editing took 14 months. But the best of editing skills cannot make up for a lack of quality in the raw material, and Wiseman achieves, in La Danse, what is notoriously difficult to do, proving also the excellence of his cameraman's eye.

The last minutes feature live performances of the works, previously followed. By shooting from the wings Wiseman captures both the ephemeral beauty of the finished product and its price and pain, the drama behind the drama, the dance behind the dance, and in spectacular style.

What: La Danse - The Paris Opera Ballet

Where and when: The Lido, Rialto and Bridgeway cinemas from December 2

- NZ Herald

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