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Sweat and struggle behind the fantasy of Paris Opera Ballet

Times Staff Writer

“Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet” is a much better documentary -- more revealing, more emotional and more surprising -- than its pedestrian English title would have you believe. You might expect its beauty but not its intelligence, its ability to reflect the texture of some extraordinary lives.

The film, whose original French title, “Tout Pres des Etoiles” (“Close to the Stars”), is a better fit, is a result of three months spent by filmmaker Nils Tavernier (who is probably tired of being identified as director Bertrand’s son) with this French institution, founded in 1713 by Louis XIV.

Dividing its time between two houses, the Palais Garnier (the “Phantom of the Opera’s” home base) and the slickly modern Palais Bastille, this company, one of the world’s premier ensembles, keeps extremely busy. Not only do its dancers do some 150 shows per year, they perform both classical and modern dance, having the unusual chance, as one of them puts it, to go from “Swan Lake” to Pina Bausch in the same season.

It goes without saying that dancers this accomplished will be able to do remarkable things with their bodies, exercising the kind of control that is a fantasy to the less gifted. Yet seeing them in the snippets of on-stage performance is the least of the pleasures of “Etoiles.”

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More interesting are the glimpses of rehearsal, in part because seeing the dancers perform in the mufti of everyday sweat clothes and tights makes what they can do more remarkable. We see them exhausted in the wings after a performance and observe a pair of dancers work through a fear of falling as they argue about the safety and security of a lift that is meant to seem natural and effortless.

Most interesting are the film’s interviews, many of them with the troupe’s top level of dancers, the etoiles. Though their lives revolve around their bodies, these individuals turn out to be a formidably articulate and analytical group.

The talk revolves around that body involvement, around trying to mix dance with love and family life, and most of all around what it is like to dance. “The stage is a drug, but every time I’m scared to death,” one man says, while a woman adds, finally at a loss for words, “it is something that devours you, something stronger than love.”

Adding an extra ingredient to the proceedings is the fact that the Paris Opera Ballet dancers come to the troupe from the company’s own school, a draconian place that starts children off around age 9 and unapologetically permits only the best of the best to advance. It is, one of the school’s administrators states with pride, “a machine that crushes the weak.”

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Though the interview selections are short and the dancers are unknown to all but devotees, almost everyone spoken to seems willing to be candid with the director, who often counterpoints his own images with lovely black-and-white stills of the same moments shot by photographer Vincent Tessier.

The final scene of “Etoiles” is both memorable in its own right and typical of what the film has been trying to do. It shows dancers backstage immediately after the end of “Swan Lake,” still in dreamy costume but wandering back to their dressing rooms and their lives with pedestrian backpacks and bottled water in their hands. This picture of the world of dance as a balance between fantasy and reality, between the dream state and the everyday, is “Etoile’s” tribute to both sides of the coin.

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‘Etoiles’

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Documentary: “Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet”

MPAA rating: No MPAA rating.

Times guidelines: adult subject matter.

A Little Bear production, in association with Gaia Films, released by First Run Features. Director Nils Tavernier. Producers Frederic Bourbolon, Agnes Le Pont. Executive producer Agathe Berman. Screenplay Nils Tavernier. Cinematographer Nils Tavernier, Dominique Le Rigoleur. Editor Florence Ricard. Running time: I hour, 40 minutes.

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In limited release.


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