La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

04 November 2010 | By Martyn Pedler

A young dancer, inexperienced but full of passion and potential, has one chance to make it big. After overcoming unexpected (often romantic) obstacles, the dancer gives a final performance, exceeding all expectations before a cheering crowd and the credits roll.

You’ve seen this movie. We’ve all seen this movie. It’s the basic template that has been used for almost every dance-related movie in Hollywood memory. And that’s one of the reasons why Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse is so refreshing to watch. It’s a documentary that not only rejects the traditional dance narrative; it does away with traditional narrative altogether.

Wiseman is a veteran filmmaker, famed for documentaries without voiceovers, without interviews. He simply shoots – around 130 hours of footage, in this case – and then painstakingly shapes the film in editing. The result is a fly-on-the-wall recreation of the daily life of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Despite its title, La Danse isn’t only about dance. We see fabric stitched and sliced, crystals glued to costume jewellery, food served in the cafeteria, and even cleaners vacuuming after a grand performance. We eavesdrop on discussions of retirement benefits, visiting donors, and “what Americans like”.

Americans, apparently, like rehearsals – so they’d love this film. La Danse features an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes dance footage. Sometimes single dancers, working alone before mirrors; sometimes whole rooms of ballerinas moving as the voices of off-screen choreographers shout instructions. Whereas most dance movies relegate rehearsals to a quick, inspiring montage or two, La Danse’s two-and-a-half-hour running time allows it to linger in the studio.

(The lengthy duration of the film may prove too much for some, as this hilarious Vanity Fair account  of one spectator’s panic proves.)

Most directors of dance on screen fall prey to using flashy, rapid-cut editing during performances, leaving audiences longing to see the dancers … you know… dance. Wiseman’s observational style bypasses this problem, letting us see not only full dance pieces, but the striking small moments around them – like the look in dancers’ eyes as they wait in the wings, moments from appearing on stage.

La Danse might not be the most obviously thrilling or spectacular, but it could be the truest film about dance ever made.