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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 28 JUNE 2010 — Cheap picture-postcard shots of Paris, the rumbling of traffic and endless shots of dimly lit corridors did not make for an auspicious opening sequence to Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, La Danse – Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris, currently airing on PBS stations across the United States (check local listings).

Wiseman is an outsider. He has looked without seeing and filmed without understanding. His camera has indeed roamed the vast Palais Garnier, dwelling on the opéra cantine, having spent a week filming all and sundry who eat there together with lurid close-ups of their food before spending time studying some workmen plastering the ceilings. He also shows greater interest in the miles of cement lined passages beneath the building rather than in the architectural beauties of the theatre up top.

Certainly he gives a few cursory shots of the monumental grand staircase and Chagall’s ceiling, but where is the grandiose Main Foyer, with its painted ceiling by Paul Baudry, the last of its kind in Paris? Where is the magnificent Avant Foyer, with its ceiling of gorgeously coloured scenes worked in mosaic on a gold background, created by the Facchina brothers from Venice? And why does he bore the spectators with repetitive shots of backstage machinery to the detriment of Carpeaux’ Dancing Group, a sculpture on the front façade which is a marvel of grace and vitality with its four lascivious Bacchanalia dancing around a central figure. It is the most outstanding work of art in the entire building. Could it be he didn’t know about it?

Moreover, why choose to film the central spiral staircase from every angle when, with the unique opportunity he was given, he would surely have had access to the mythic Foyer de la Danse, a gilded jewel box with myriads of golden butterflies symbolising dance fluttering along the walls?  

This is not really a documentary about dance; the title is misleading. Wiseman shows people working, filming rehearsal after rehearsal in a confused cacophony of movement, where the dancers themselves and the ballets they are working on are all thrown together — interpreters, choreographers and teachers. There is a frustrating sequence with two of the most important personalities of the dance world in France, Ghislaine Thesmar, an outstanding pedagogue, and the choreographer Pierre Lacotte, both coaching Agnès Letestu and Hervé Moreau in Lacotte’s brilliant reconstruction of Paquita. Here was an unprecedented opportunity to record these people who have so much to say but he has reduced them instead to a circus act, with étoile Hervé Moreau a shady figure in the background.

Ballet master, Laurent Hilaire fared much better, filmed intelligently and consequently showing insight into what this great company is about. Hilaire at work showed just why the French company remains one of the finest in the world, but moments like these were far too scarce.

It was important to show artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre at work, but here Wiseman went truly overboard, showing her on the telephone, at meetings discussing programmes for guest companies, talking over problems with aging dancers, dealing with the problems of younger dancers, reassuring visiting choreographers, addressing Gala dinners, presiding over meetings with company members as well as lengthy discussions elsewhere over the issue of dancers’ pensions. She is even shown chatting to journalists in a bewildering sequence of shots which she would probably have been the first to edit down. Too much told too little of this interesting and articulate woman.

Severe editing down of the two hours and thirty-nine minute film would also have done great service to the grace and beauty of the dancers, but the few cuts that were made came in the oddest places. The spectator is treated to the army of cleaning staff collecting rubbish, vacuuming the interior of the amphitheatre and mopping all the marble floors, but when Wiseman had the opportunity to film Nureyev’s magical pas de deux from The Nutcracker, in performance with Letitia Pujol and Nicolas Le Riche, he soon lost interest on the action on stage. Tchaikovsky’s score thus accompanies his camera while it peers into the wings, lingers on the machinery backstage and runs up and down the curtains. Contrary to the publicity leaflet distributed, Frederick Wiseman did not devote much time to the filming of one of the world’s greatest artists.

Not the same can be said, however, for the choreography of Wayne McGregor and for the British choreographer himself. They dominate the film to the detriment of much else. Genus is shown, in performance, and almost in its entirety, but no word is given as to the identity of the interpreters, in this case, Marie-Agnès Gillot and Mathias Heymann. The only other ballet recorded in detail was Preljocaj’s Medée, but this was not filmed in context and the close-ups of the buckets of blood and blood-stained children veered towards gratuitous sensationalism for those unfamiliar with the work.

Frederick Wiseman forged his reputation filming social issues, and won acclaim for his documentaries on domestic violence and public housing, subjects which have little in common with dance. This documentary, encompassing as it tried the whole sweep of the company and their home, proved to be a far too ambitious project. A basic, minimum knowledge of the history of dance and a love of the art itself is necessary for such an undertaking.

La Danse – Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris
Directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman

Photography by John Davey
Produced by Pierre-Oliver Bardet, Frederick Wiseman, and Françoise Gazio

PBS Television Website 

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for and last wrote on the Paris Opera Ballet star Stéphane Bullion

Related Culturekiosque Dance Archives

Book Review: In the Company of Stars: The Paris Opera Ballet, by Gérard Uféras

Please click here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of interviews with international choreographers and dance stars.

Please click here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of dance reviews of performances by troupes and companies from all over the world.

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