Muses in motion

Film director Dominique Delouche immortalizes ballet.

JUMP ON IT Violette Verdy, left, will appear wiht Delouche, below, in a Q&A following the July 26 screening of Violette et Mr. B.

JUMP ON IT Violette Verdy, left, will appear wiht Delouche, below, in a Q&A following the July 26 screening of Violette et Mr. B. Photograph: Courtesy of Dominique Deluche

To Joanna Ney, there aren’t many people like Dominique Delouche left in the world. The French director, the subject of a retrospective Ney curated at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, started out as Federico Fellini’s assistant director before creating a wealth of films that both pay homage to ballet stars and show how roles are meticulously passed on. “He’s a noble figure in my mind,” Ney says. “So many people don’t care about history—everything is brand new, which is great, but when I go to various ballet companies, I realize how important really good coaching is.” In films such as Yvette Chauviré: Une étoile pour l’exemple (1987) and Markova, la légende (2001), Delouche, who was born in 1931, focuses largely on that process, pairing ballerinas like Chauviré, Alicia Markova and Violette Verdy with younger dancers in the studio.

The series, part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2008, includes seven of his dance portraits and 1968’s 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, along with Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (the inspiration for Sweet Charity). There is no dancing in 24 Hours, which stars Danielle Darrieux, though it is choreographed—like something of a ballet—from beginning to end. Delouche, who spoke from Paris, will be on hand to introduce his films.

How old were you when you first watched a ballet performance?
I was 11. During the war, the Germans were in Paris and I was a little boy. I liked music because I studied piano, but I had no idea what dancing was. So my father took me to the opera and it was amazing, firstly because Paris was in black—very sad at that time. So to enter this magnificent place was amazing. But the most amazing thing was to discover the dancers, because I didn’t imagine that a human being could do what I saw. It was a shock, and that remains for me: It was like seeing a new dimension of human beings. These people were masters of the space—like angels.

How do you decide generally to take on a subject?
Oh, it’s like a love story. If I am not inspired, I won’t do it. So each character I make a film about, it is like to fall in love. It takes time because I can’t fall in love every six months. [Laughs] But before you decide to make a film, there’s a moment of hesitation: Is she able to do it? Has she kept the memory of the ballet? It is a turning point in the process to approach each person, and there are times when you don’t go to the very end. I planned to make a film with Marcia Haydée, and it couldn’t go on because there were problems with the rights of John Cranko’s ballets, so I had to stop. At that point, it is very unpleasant. Like a love story that turns bad. It is like thinking you will have a baby and not go to the end.

What is your approach to filming ballet?
What I can tell you is that I’m not interested in filming ballet. I am interested to approach personalities and to let them give their message, their knowledge to younger dancers. Filming ballet is not interesting because I think the time of cinema and the time of theater are not the same. The ballet is betrayed by cinema, so I only include excerpts, like examples: I put a short footage of the ballet only to show the piece we are working on with the ballerina or the choreographer and with the pupil, but it is only a quotation. The right way to enjoy ballet is to be in the theater with the dancer’s emotion.

How did you meet Fellini?
[Happily] Ah, Fellini! I met him at the Venice Film Festival in ’54. He introduced La Strada and I was there because going to the festival was the best way to see three or four films a day. I was very young. I wanted to make film, but I did not see the possibility to do that; I was very lost in the world of cinema. So I saw La Strada, and it was a shock for me because I adored it, and it was not well accepted by the audience. I thought that Mr. Fellini must be very unhappy and that one should tell him that the film is a masterpiece. So I met him and in my poor Italian I said that the film was the best of the festival and maybe the best I’d ever seen; he was a bit embarrassed and sad, and Giulietta [Masina] was behind him, weeping. They were like rejected people. One could think that it was opportunistic for me, but not at all because it was the right time and the right place to be elected by Fellini as a friend. I asked him if he would accept me on his team, and that happened. I stood five years beside him as his assistant. It was a wonderful period of my life.

What are you working on now?
I am writing a book on Violette Verdy. I am not sure I am going to make other films about the personality of a dancer. I had a clash with Marcia Haydée, and I wouldn’t like to find myself again in that situation. I am not young, you know! Maybe. I think I am still able to make a film or two about ballet, but I have to fall in love. [Laughs] That doesn’t happen every day.

Dominique Delouche: Ballet Cineaste is at the Walter Reade Theater Wed 23–July 27. For the entire interview, visit timeoutnewyork.com.