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La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

  • Film
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars
Usually when critics write about American documentary-maker Frederick Wiseman, he’s described as cinema’s foremost chronicler of Western institutions, from welfare offices (‘Welfare’) and schools (‘High School’) to research laboratories (‘Primate’) and even entire towns (‘Aspen’). Considering the subjects of his many films over the past 40 years, the label has a cosy logic to it. But it undersells much of what makes Wiseman one of the unheralded giants of modern cinema: his cool formal assurance; his non-patronising, unpretentious ‘show don’t tell’ technique; and most vitally, his knack for locating poetry in even the most mundane human behaviour.

For his thirty-eighth film, and his second about a ballet company after 1995’s ‘Ballet’, Wiseman documents three months spent in the opulent halls, rehearsal rooms and performance spaces of Paris’s Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera Ballet. With his long-time cinematographer John Davey, a single camera assistant and a crate of Super 16 film, he works his minimalist magic to utterly immersive effect, adding another quietly transcendent movie to his unique body of work.

After setting the scene with a series of exquisite panoramic shots of the Paris skyline, we’re whisked into the haunting basement corridors of the baroque Palais and allowed to peek in on a rehearsal in full flow. Over the course of the film, we monitor the progress of seven ballets of varying styles and sizes, from their embryonic practice stages to their virtuosic final performances.

To capture this artistic evolution, Wiseman merely finds himself a corner and allows his camera the room to soak up the minutiae of all that’s happening around him in a series of long, unbroken, beautifully composed takes. We see dancers zealously mimicking the complex movements of their instructors. We see technicians labouring over props and sets while in-house tailors pore over the individual sequins on every costume. We even see a man who keeps bees on the roof of the building.
Beyond exploring the structures of organisations such as the Paris Opera Ballet, Wiseman is equally interested in discovering how people behave and communicate at work. Here, the interactions between dancer and instructor are as fascinating and full of electricity as the dances themselves, based on intricate wordless exchanges where the expressiveness of simple noises and movements patch over the cracks that ordinary language can’t cover. For Wiseman, life’s rhythms are just as important as its incidents, and as a result, ‘La Danse’ is an example of cinema at its most musical, an awe-inspiring celebration of body, mind and movement.
Written by David Jenkins

Release Details

  • Rated:PG
  • Release date:Friday 23 April 2010
  • Duration:158 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Frederick Wiseman
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