REVIEW: DVD Release: La Danse

Film: La Danse
Release date: 26th July 2010
Certificate: PG
Running time: 159 mins
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Starring: N/a
Genre: Documentary
Studio: Soda
Format: DVD
Country: France/USA

Guggenheim and McArthur fellowship winning director Frederick Wiseman puts the 'mini' in minimalistic as he embarks on his latest cinematic venture with only a single camera assistant and trusted long-time collaborator John Davey (cinematographer) by his side.

The documentary opens with a sequence of beautifully panoramic shots over the French capital’s skyline, before diving headlong into the frantic rehearsal studios of the Paris Opera Ballet (Ballet de l'OpĂ©ra National de Paris). Unobtrusive camera in place, we become voyeurs, hoping for the extraordinary in strangers’ everyday lives, as we watch ostensibly every aspect of over half a dozen ballets, as they grow from their sweat drenched births and travel along artistic pathways before reaching their grandiose final performances.

From stage hands and technicians to set design and costume makers, from backroom staff and choreographers to novice dancers and prima donnas, each and every cog in the ballet’s works is on display and open to scrutiny. The actual dance seems of secondary importance to a director intent on capturing the necessary human interaction needed to successfully produce such a skilful display…

Critically acclaimed filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who studied documentary making at Munich’s Honchschule fur Fernsehen und Film from 1985 until 1992, is no stranger when it comes to observing, and often exposing, in a warts and all style, the inner workings of structured and often respected institutions. Research laboratories placed under the spotlight in Primate and welfare offices which were laid stripped in Welfare, in particular, spring to mind. Yet ballet, already studied and filmed by Wiseman in 1995’s Ballet, seems more of a guilty pleasure than a subject matter visited to enlighten a naive publics preconceptions. That said, Wiseman does not allow a reignited passion to cloud his observations, never shying away from conflict, as his camera effortlessly captures the underlying tensions emitting from all involved.

Wiseman’s approach to La Danse is in line with his previous work - little preparation, a short stay of several weeks on location, no interviews with the objects of his attention, and no knowledgeable voiceover to guide the audience. His style, usually successful, if occasionally alienating, is to simply film the world go by, standing back, never coaxing or manipulating, that is until he reaches the editing suite. Here Wiseman takes his sizeable source material, often over one hundred hours in length, and skilfully whittles it down into a more compact and comprehendible package. One major problem with this particular piece of work is the boredom factor. Firstly the running length is such that it saps all our strength and diminishes the impact of the few genuine instances of spectacle that arrive sandwiched between long drawn out segments of mundane emptiness. Yes it is commendable, necessary perhaps, to show the humdrum and routine of the subjects, their process and pain, but in small segments rather than have that as the film’s model.

Stranger still is the choice of ballets we are permitted to observe. With all the great productions that have graced the Paris Opera Ballet’s floor, directed by the likes of Nureyev and his ilk, Wiseman insists on ignoring the classics, casting them aside in favour of modern works, which, in turn, partially ostracises all but those devout souls educated in dance.

On the plus side, unlike the majority of his other documentaries, this film does have a semi narrative arc, in the sense that we do see the elaborate ballet’s creation, via the subject’s hard graft, right through until we reach the desired performance. However, without any standout characters on display, rather a large and merging array of humanity, we never grow close enough to anyone in particular to feel that a satisfactory conclusion to proceedings has been reached.

La Danse is a solid piece of filmmaking, yet it is difficult to imagine this documentary being of any interest or capturing the imagination of anyone apart from those already passionate about ballet. MG

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