From Frederick Wiseman, a veteran American filmmaker and producer of documentaries about institutions and their human dynamics, comes an opulent new film entitled “La danse: Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris,” one of the highlights of the European Film Panorama which kicks off tomorrow at Galaxy cinema and City Stars.
This is an unprecedented inside look at the human, managerial, and technological mechanics of one of the world’s premier ballet companies — the Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris. Founded in the 1660s under Louis XIV, the Paris national Opera and its ballet company is an exclusive and highly selective institution which occupies and is operated from the splendid Palais Garnier opera house at the heart of the City of Light.
The company stages almost 200 performances every season and is comprised of 191 dancers under the management of Company Director Brigitte Lefèvre. She is prominently featured in the film as a judicious and inspired leader of this vibrant creative enterprise.
Wiseman leaves no corner of the Palais Garnier unexplored. True to his traditional style, this film, while seemingly lacking a narrative, in fact has a dramatic story arch. This “dramatic structure,” as Wiseman has referred to it in the past, centers on the performers of “La Danse.” The film’s title says it all. It is, before anything else, a movie about dancing.
There are sequences of footage from rehearsals for some of the company’s season highlights; as the film progresses, snippets of repetitions flow into whole dance numbers. As we find out more about the workings of the company, so the various elements of creating a ballet converge into the final scenes from performances.
Wiseman starts with the dance and ends with the dance: the muscles of the human body, the flow of the music, and the rhythms of movement are the formative structure of the film.
But as he takes the audience into costume shops, we start to see more backstage scenes of rehearsals in costume. We start learning more about the business side of dance, witnessing the daily dynamics between management, dancers and instructors. We are shown every aspect of life within the company, including a glimpse of the cafeteria’s offerings, the construction of PR projects to attract donors, and the multiplicity of maintenance and custodial works which occur regularly in the building.
Two of the strangest moments appear in the film quite unexpectedly but are a testament to Wiseman’s meticulous approach to the subject; a reminder of the mysterious history of the building. The Palais Garnier was, after all, the inspiration behind Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel “The Phantom of the Opera.”
It is astonishing to learn that the opera house is a host to its own ecosystem. On the roof of the building, there is a small bee-keeping setup. A man is filmed cleaning honey off of the frames of the small wooden hive, which we can only imagine makes its way down to the cafeteria.
Towards the end of the picture, we are shown a sequence of basement shots and hear the sound of running water. This is the famed underground “lake” which was created during the construction of the building in the 19th century and still used today as a water reserve in case of fire. The building of the Palais Garnier was notoriously difficult for engineers and architects due to swampy terrain in this area of Paris. Wiseman shows us a few small fish and plant life which have harmoniously incorporated themselves into the life of the company.
There is no narration throughout the film which is typical of Wiseman’s work. Yet there is a distinct sense of storytelling which retains the viewer’s attention for the two-and-a-half hour duration.
There are also no direct interviews or self-referential footage of the film’s production crew. There’s no score as well; the only music heard is the one featured at rehearsals and performances. In other words the actual events were in no way manipulated to alter the mood of the Palais Garnier. The film is constructed exclusively through editing. All of the conversations occur naturally and independently of the filmmakers and yet they are cropped together in such a way that the audience does not feel excluded or out of touch.
Perhaps the only obvious shortfall is the lack of title cards or subtitles indicating which productions are being shown. At times, the footage is so engaging and the performances so passionate that one instinctively desires to see the finished product live.
“La Danse” is a masterful presentation of a world which harkens back to old-fashioned artistic forms and cultural consumption. However, Wiseman’s documentation of the life of the company reminds us that ballet is still a relevant and vibrant art form, embracing both tradition and the avant-garde in the grace and power of both the human body and imagination.
“La danse: Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris” is screening Nov. 4 at Galaxy cinema, 3:30 pm; and Nov. 6 at CityStars cinema, 10:30 am.
The film’s dramatic arch centers on the performers of “La Danse.”