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At this point Frederick Wiseman's documentaries are almost beyond reproach. For more than 40 years he's stuck to the same ascetic storytelling style: no title cards, no voice-over narration, no talking-head interviews, no staged re-creations or archival clips. His films can be demanding, but after one has been poked and prodded by more commercial documentaries, the simple observation of Wiseman's sweeping institutional studies can be gratifying.
La Danse—The Paris Opera Ballet gives Wiseman another chance—after Ballet, his 1995 film about the American Ballet Theater—to indulge a love of dance and study the grinding gears of an artistic organization. There are numerous rehearsal scenes with dancers and choreographers, and Wiseman's patient gaze, unbroken with the sort of zippy cutting one expects in a dance documentary, conveys the amount of grueling, physically stressful work that goes into the illusion of easy grace we witness onstage.
But these scenes are punctuated with others that examine the more prosaic aspects of the Paris Opera Ballet. In the business offices, fundraisers confer with the ballet's artistic director about a backstage tour that will give cushy American benefactors (including some from Lehman Brothers) more bang for their 25,000 bucks. Elsewhere at the opera house, seamstresses work on the dancers' costumes, makeup artists carefully paint the performers, workmen paint and repair ceiling plaster, cafeteria workers dish out lunch to the employees, and—who knew?—a beekeeper monitors his honeycombs on the roof.
The dance ranges from classical (with a rehearsal of Swan Lake) to modern (with antsy movements set to throbbing techno), and the work is frequently stunning. In the end, however, La Danse impressed me most with its workaday structure. Most backstage documentaries build to the big climax of opening night, the audience exploding with applause as the curtain comes down and the performers embracing one another in the wings. But in La Danse, the dress rehearsals are all we get, and as the end of the movie draws near, basic choreography for the next production is already in progress. The focus of the film is not the lifespan of the performance but the organic life of the ballet itself, which goes on and on.