Tuesday, November 24, 2009

La Danse

Here I am again writing about something that appeals to me even though I really know nothing about it. In this case, the subject is ballet, especially as captured by the great cinema verite filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, in possibly his greatest creation yet - La Danse - a chronicle of the Paris Opera Ballet. Wiseman's style is to spend many months filming his subject, shooting outrageous amounts of footage, and then to edit that footage into a narrative that simply unfolds without narration or explanation. He has done this for many subjects and institutions - perhaps most famously in Titicut Follies - about the mistreatment of patients at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane; High School, a portrait of a very bad school; High School II, a portrait of a very good school; Hospital, in which he documents the whole range of activities, both grand and pathetic, that occur in a typical hospital; and more recently, State Legislature, about the shenanigans and good intensions of various Idaho State legislators. There are many, many other such projects directed and edited by Wiseman.

What sets La Danse apart, at least for me, is the rapturous beauty of many of its scenes - dancers of impossible grace and ability wrapping themselves around each other, first in rehearsal and then in performance. But what is also outstanding is the range of activity that revolves around the dancers and the dances. The administrators who keep the company going but who do so largely as a labor of love, the choreographers who want to experiment with new moves and new music, despite their lack of popularity with the dancers. And then all the costumers and stage hands and make up artists who help to make the dancers beautiful and the productions luminous. It is all there woven into this amazing and almost always diverting story. In this film, Wiseman never holds any one scene too long. His timing is superb as he moves from rehearsals, to planning meetings, to outside shots of the beautiful ballet theatre, to these immensely appealing and beautifully lit scenes of the dancers in full costume and at their artistic best.

The final pas de deux, danced to a solo cello (I think), is shown strikingly and even painfully in rehearsal, but to see it so perfectly and gorgeously realized in performance as the film comes to an end is to ensure that the best is saved for last.

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