Behind the scenes at the ballet: From documentary master Frederick Wiseman, a look at the demanding world of the Paris Opera Ballet
Magic is the easiest way to come to terms with the work that goes into art. The untrained eye doesn’t know how. It knows only what. Art happens. Process is often a secondary consideration. But on occasion, the question arises: How, indeed?
The great, tireless filmmaker Frederick Wiseman spent a recent season with the Paris Opera Ballet and merged with the dancers, instructors, administrators, support staff, and choreographers. The result is “La Danse,’’ a unique kind of magic: a documentary about the work in art that is itself a work of art.
For long stretches, the camera watches rehearsals in the Opera Ballet’s studios: dancers doing pas de deux and pas de trois. There are no title cards, no introductions. We’re simply dropped off for 153 grand minutes. We see the ways in which a dance is constructed and polished. The various pieces are both intricate classical ballet (seasonally enough, Rudolf Nureyev’s “The Nutcracker’’) and thrillingly, gruelingly modern (Pina Bausch, Wayne McGregor, Mats Ek).
We can hear the conversations that go on between the instructors and choreographers, and come to appreciate the degree to which some dancers are athletes and others, the exceptional ones, are stars. You can see the difference for yourself. Some of these men and women can take the corporeal calculus of choreography and turn it into body song or drama.
The construction of these dances is illuminating. So are the asides between the instructors. A man and a woman, overseeing a rehearsal with two dancers, bicker, in French, about how the art form has evolved. She recalls that Maria Tallchief had “something of a heavy butt,’’ then suggests that one of the dancers rethink her développé (the unfolding of the leg in the air). “You’ll think you are late, but it will be beautiful,’’ she promises.
As a glimpse into the rehearsal process of one of the world’s finest dance companies, the film would be an exclusive treat. But “La Danse’’ is altogether more fascinating as a consideration of the Paris Opera Ballet as a kind of organism. With deceptive rhythm (a shot of a stairwell, a shot down a hallway, a look at two dancers passing through a door), we move from the rehearsals to the building’s cafeteria, to the grand theater where lighting cues and hectic dress rehearsals are underway (why, one of the directors asks, is one dancer wearing those leg warmers under her tutu?), to the live performances themselves. Wiseman watches a cook on a smoking break. He makes several observational visits to the costume department where garments are being pressed and sequins threaded onto skirts.
In other words, the institution is very much alive, and a great deal of its vibrancy seems to emanate from the offices of Brigitte Lefevre, the artistic director. Lefevre appears to be a serious but hardly humorless woman. She plots the programming, mollifies the dancers, counsels the guest choreographers, tolerates the entitled wishes of various donors, and, most crucially, considers both practical and philosophical matters. For instance, she’s concerned that the students in the dance school are clinging to the classics when they ought be out exploring contemporary pieces. And what about a plan B? Dancers can dance professionally, if they’re lucky, to 40. She wants the students to prepare for a life after the stage - although, we learn, the French retirement system looks out for its artists.
Once again, Wiseman has turned his meticulously immersive bystander approach to an artistic outfit. He’s given similar (and even more extensive) treatment to both the American Ballet Theater (1995’s “Ballet’’) and to the Comédie-Française (1996’s “La Comédie-Française’’). In all three, Wiseman finds deep pleasure in the application and development of talent. With “La Danse,’’ you have the sense the quest for perfection never rests. There’s something heartening about the way in which the dancers focus on the honing of their craft as opposed to some whimsical wish for stardom. He never shows us a civilian audience, only other dancers regarding their peers from the wings. It’s an honor to watch.
And to think what some have paid to do so. At some point, Lefevre is informed that a few donors who’ve given more than $25,000, including associates at the late Lehman Brothers, want lunch and a peek at rehearsals. She has her doubts. Wiseman, meanwhile, offers us the same gratifying privilege at a steep discount.