A word to the Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman goes digital-Ballet fans, rejoice.

A SECRET HISTORY Wiseman, bottom, goes behind the scenes in Ballet.

A SECRET HISTORY Wiseman, bottom, goes behind the scenes in Ballet. Photographs: ©1995 Zipporah Films, Inc.

The first ten minutes of Frederick Wiseman’s Ballet, shot in 1992, begin with a tangerine sunrise soaking the Manhattan skyline and a long shot of a quiet studio where dancers stretch on their stomachs and backs, cranking their legs and hips with rubbery exactitude. Jane Hermann, director of American Ballet Theatre at the time, sits grimly behind her desk, discussing numbers over the phone. Agnes de Mille, captured just before her death in 1993, rehearses her final ballet for ABT from a wheelchair (The Other, with Amanda McKerrow). “You must look like something that’s absolutely broken and stuck up in the wind,” De Mille explains to McKerrow.

In these few minutes, Wiseman sheds more light on the reality of life in a classical ballet company than any fictional film on the subject. Released in 1995 and just out on DVD, his legendary documentary is a startling look at the business and art of ballet. Even though ABT is now a wholly different company due to turnover, Ballet is as relevant as ever, and in the ephemeral world of dance, it’s a precious artifact.

The film tracks the troupe from a company class to one-on-one-sessions between dancers and ballet masters or physical therapists, before culminating in a tour of Athens and Copenhagen. “I wanted to make the film with one of the best companies and the choice in New York at that time was New York City Ballet or ABT,” Wiseman, 73, recalls. “And I went to see Jane Hermann and she said okay.” That quick decision might have been Hermann’s best during her short ABT tenure; NYCB, as it turns out, was never approached.

Wiseman followed the company for nine weeks in New York and on tour; he then edited nearly 120 hours of footage down to three. “To me, length is linked to immersion,” he says. “If you made a 60-minute or 90-minute film of a ballet company, you wouldn’t get a sense of the repetitive aspects and the endurance that’s required. It would trivialize it.”

Despite documentary subjects as diverse as the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts (1967’s Titicut Follies) and the world of modeling (1980’s Model), Wiseman’s method remains largely the same: to attack the subject with little knowledge, but massive curiosity. “I approached doing Ballet the way I approach all films—I knew I had a lot to learn,” he explains. “I don’t really know much of anything about the specifics of the place or the institution before I start, so my curiosity level is always quite high; that’s the only way I can try to make a decent film. The final film represents a report on what I’ve learned, and that involves keeping my eyes and ears open to what’s going on.”

In Ballet, Wiseman captures, famously, Hermann reaming the bejesus out of an employee at the Metropolitan Opera House for booking the Kirov with similar repertory after ABT’s season (“If you wanted to put a knife in me and you,” she growls, “you couldn’t have done much better”). As Wiseman notes, “ABT’s situation was teetering on the verge of, if not bankruptcy, then major financial hardship. Jane was being tough in the interest of ABT. It seemed to be what was required.”

At the moment, Wiseman, who normally doesn’t repeat subjects, is completing the editing process on a second dance film, this one focusing on the Paris Opéra Ballet. He expects that final prints will be completed in December. “The focus is similar to the ABT movie in the sense that I went to rehearsals and performances, and Brigitte Lefèvre, who is the director of the ballet company, let me go to staff and scheduling meetings and private meetings that she had with choreographers and dancers. The end result, I hope, will be a profile of the work of the company in rehearsal and performance, and some of the administrative aspects, which make it possible for a company like that to exist. It’s not at all the same film. It’s the same technique.”

Wiseman, who describes himself as an amateur spectator, is entranced with the beauty of ballet. “I also like the fact that a ballet company can be hierarchical—there are stars and corps dancers and all that, but people have to work together. If they don’t, they can’t get the result to achieve the effect the choreographer and the dancers have in mind. And it’s fascinating to think about this: Sometimes what went on in rehearsals is as fascinating to observe as a performance. It’s the kind of thing I could have worked on—in either of those movies—for ten years, with no film in the camera.”

Ballet is available at ($29.95).