Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Wiseman’s La Danse

At a mere 158 minutes, Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary opus is practically a short subject by his standards. It is also one of his most accessible, focusing on the passionate art of the choreographers and dancers of one of the world’s elite ballet companies in La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

In many ways, Wiseman is the anti-Michael Moore documentarian. Never seen on camera, Wiseman refrains from any techniques, like voice-overs or talking head interviews, which might impose personal judgments on his subjects. Instead, he captures his subjects from a fly-on-the-wall-perspective, only exercising his subjective sensibilities as a filmmaker during the editing process. The result is often very long films like his prior film, 217 minute State Legislature, a portrait of Idaho’s state legislators at work.

Wiseman’s films frequently depict the inner workings of large institutions, fascinating in the mundane details of seemingly government bureaucracies. However, in La Danse, he has an enormously photogenic environment in the magnificent Paris Opera Hall, a remarkable building that becomes as much a character in La Danse as the dancers rehearsing in its various studios.

While from time to time, we sit in on the business meetings that make the performances possible or watch the janitors at work, but the bulk of La Danse consists of dance, starting with early rehearsals and culminating with the stage performances. Evidently, the Paris Opera programs quite a diverse season, from traditional crowd pleasers like The Nutcracker (as choreographed by Rudolf Noureev) to more demanding fare, like Mats Ek’s La Maison de Bernarda.

This is indeed a dance film, but it is not exactly The Red Shoes. Wiseman’s transparent camera shows us the arduously hard work required to maintain the company’s lofty standards. He also makes some rather unusual editorial decisions, for instance showing the audience the disturbing scene from Angelin Preljocaj’s Medea that truly makes it Medea.

La Danse certainly bears the Wiseman stamp, thoroughly immersing viewers in the Paris Opera Ballet’s rarified world (which looks quite striking through John Davey’s lens). It is also a particularly audience-friendly effort from the legendary documentarian, given its manageable running time and relatively commercial subject matter. Ballet lovers as well as Wiseman admirers should find it a rich viewing experience when it opens at the Film Forum tomorrow (11/4).