La Danse dir Frederick Wiseman, 2009
Today at the Film Forum theater crowds of people came to see this movie. All three screenings were sold out. Perhaps it is to have the rare chance to see the documentary master Frederick Wiseman’s movie on the big screen or perhaps it is because the footage of the ballet is so extraordinarily faithful to the intention of the company.
Wiseman’s opening shots establish location in as rhythmic and rigorous a beat as the dancers at the barre. Wiseman locates us first underground, in the bowels of the Paris Opera building, then in the hallways, then up the steps, and so on until at one point we get to see a beekeeper on the roof harvesting honey. Who knew the bees we had heard were in decline were thriving on the rooftops of Paris?
Wiseman slowly leads us into the workings of the ballet company considered one of the greatest in the world. But first we get to know the building where they work and the city where the building is. I don’t know why he needs so many shots of the city of Paris even though I too love Paris and think it is one of the most successful examples of a metropolis that knows how to preserve its very heart, beautiful, built to human scale, architecture.
But we really want to see the dancers learning how to dance the dances that we see when they are perfected. Isn’t that why we came? And to see the woman spray painting the worn out toe shoes so that they look new? And the man applying glue with the precision of an aeronautical engineer so that the sequin will stay just so. We want to see the rows of costumes rolled in, each one tagged with the dancer’s name. We want to see the handicraft of preparing the tutus, and the mounds of tulle before they become costumes, and the make up and the wigs. There is so much individual labor that goes into such the jewel- like work art of ballet. So many unknown people, like the woman dying the dress. These are the behind the scenes images that stay with me. That and the painstaking one on one tutorials that convey the steps of the choreography from a dance master to his dancer. The individuals who make the dance possible are not just the choreographers and the dancers but the painters keeping the walls of the studios fresh. Even though the movie is called La Danse, to me the movie is an ode to labor.