Directed by: Frederick Wiseman (“The Garden”)
To understand and admire the work of an observational documentary filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, one must be open to an artistic and minimalist vision. Depending on what his subject is for his film, one may also need to be close to the industry he decides to capture on camera to be genuinely fascinated. In the case of “La Danse,” unless ballet flows through your veins or you are able to deeply appreciate each nanosecond of a perfect arabesque, the documentary might feel a bit impersonal especially if you’ve never seen any of Wiseman’s work before.
In the past, Wiseman, who has been making docs for over 40 years and is now 80 years old, has always created clear-cut narratives through the lens of his camera. Like a fly on the wall, he watches the inner workings of places most people would pass through without thinking of it as a location for a feature documentary. For example, in 1968, Wiseman camped out in the hallways of a high school for a year and shot footage to complete one of his first films, “High School.” In 1983, he focused his attention inside a Neiman Marcus store during Christmastime and released “The Store.” In 2007, Madison Square Garden was his inspiration for “The Garden.” Notice a trend?
In his most recent work, “La Danse,” Wiseman infiltrates the Palais Garnier in Paris, the institution where dancers of the Opera Ballet practice for their upcoming performances. Stepping through the studios and corridors of the building, Wiseman documents every nuance of the company as groups of dancers rehearse for seven separate ballets.
Not only does Wiseman shoot footage of ballerinas in tutus dancing to classical piano music, he also incorporates other everyday events into his narrative. Whether he is shooting a meeting between ballet directors or catches costume designers at work, it’s evident that Wiseman wants the full scope of all the activities that go on under the roof of the Palais Garnier. Even the empty hallways and staircases become characters in his graceful and lengthy film.
There are no talking-head interviews with the dancers, no questinos about their inspiration behind their craft, no narration, no sound bites, no camera tricks or fancy editing. “La Danse” is documentary filmmaking in its simplest form. It all comes back to the ballet. It’s in these fluid motions of the human body when “La Danse” is at its most intriguing. At times, Wiseman will hold the camera on a rehearsal for nearly 10 minutes, which may be daunting to some, but watching the ballet come to life through precise choreography and elegance is entrancing for those who want to experience something different.
With extreme attention to detail, Wiseman continues to take us places we’ve never been and does it with an authenticity some modern documentarians have strayed away from. It’s refreshing to know there is a non-fiction filmmaker out there who is still a purist.