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 Wisemans documentary,
La Danse Le Ballet de lOpera 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 Chagalls 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 didnt 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
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 Lacottes 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 Nureyevs 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. Tchaikovskys 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 worlds 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 Preljocajs 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
La Danse Le Ballet de lOpéra de Paris
Directed and edited
by Frederick Wiseman
Photography by John Davey
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 Culturekiosque.com and last wrote on the Paris Opera Ballet star
Related Culturekiosque Dance
Book Review: In the
Company of Stars: The Paris Opera Ballet, by Gérard Uféras
here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of interviews with international
choreographers and dance stars.
here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of dance reviews of performances by
troupes and companies from all over the world.