‘La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet’

Film Critic

Bodies in motion tend to remain in motion, but almost never with the heart-stirring beauty and grace on view in Frederick Wiseman’s exceptional portrait of the Paris Opera Ballet, “La Danse.”

Wiseman has been making his kind of quiet but potent documentaries for decades. “La Danse” is his 36th, following looks at institutions as varied as the Idaho state legislature, a Chicago public housing development and the Neiman Marcus department store.

As a director, Wiseman’s approach is unvarying. He simply looks and observes, avoiding voice-over, talking heads, any kind of obvious framing devices. Made with their own rhythms and internal logic, his films don’t build in any conventional way but their cumulative impact is always formidable.

The Paris Opera Ballet proves to be one of his most accessible, seductive subjects, allowing for an enchanting blend of subject and filmmaker. “La Danse” takes you inside the essence of dance in a way few films can, not even Wiseman’s 1995 “Ballet,” a look at the American Ballet Theatre. If you don’t already swoon over this art form, this film will make you wonder what took you so long.

The Paris Opera Ballet takes on both contemporary and classic dance and is housed in the grand Palais Garnier, the setting of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Perhaps in tribute, “La Danse” opens with a quiet shot of an underground chamber that subtly echoes the classic Lon Chaney silent film.

Upstairs in the building’s rehearsal spaces, with light pouring in from the great circular windows, the mood is completely different. This is the realm of the young and vital dancers, individuals who carry themselves with a certain esprit, an undeniable sense of being at the top of their game.

“La Danse” observes these people intently, watching as they stretch in practice togs and perform on stage in elaborate costumes. But it mostly watches them while they are at their most intimate and intense, which is during the rehearsal process, working by themselves, with other dancers or receiving precise instructions from choreographers.

To be so up close with the dancers is to understand what makes ballet such an elevated form of human activity. Wiseman’s structure and the great work of cinematographer John Davey show us the uncanny precision and beauty these individuals are capable of, as well as making us understand fully the cliché that the dancers’ instruments are their bodies.

As its objective is to reveal the organization whole, “La Danse” shows us more than performance. We are taken inside the café and the costume shop and watch the creation of hair and makeup that has to be just so. We also spend time with Brigitte Lefèvre, the company’s all-business artistic director, seeing the problems and situations she has to contend with.

Yet, as it should, “La Danse” always returns to the dancers. The end credits tell us the titles of the ballets danced and the names of the performers and choreographers involved, which is a good thing because unless you are deeply involved in ballet, you won’t recognize them. Which is, one suspects, exactly Wiseman’s point.

Like artists and institutions (the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, for one) who believe that titles just get in the way, the filmmaker wants you to concentrate on what these people are doing, not who they are. It’s a measure of how well “La Danse” succeeds that past a certain point we cease to care about identification and focus on the wonders to be seen. Artistic director Lefèvre quotes choreographer Maurice Béjart’s definition of a ballet dancer as “half nun, half boxer,” and it is the triumph of Wiseman’s method, and this film, that it shows what he meant.