La Danse: Inside the Dancer’s Studio

Dance fans rejoice — you’re not likely to find a better onscreen exploration of the art form any time soon. La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet is two-and-a-half hours of rehearsals, performance and a minimum of backstage business, presented without a word of narration or context. Instead, director Frederick Wiseman throws his audience straight into the heart of one of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies, and lets the action speak for itself.

Movement can be an impenetrable language, though, and the lack of a translator can be intimidating — especially since the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire spans the worlds of classical and modern dance. The performances that cap La Danse include the familiar — namely Tchaikovsky’s perennial favourite, The Nutcracker — but also contemporary dance of the “put-a-bucket-on-your-head-and-coat-yourself-in-blood” sort.

As bizarre as it gets, though, the film’s methodical depiction of the rehearsal process provides an entryway of its own. You see the dancers break down complex sequences into minute movements, and observe the way their teachers criticize flaws in those movements that would be invisible to less-skilled eyes. The grace and athleticism of even the early rehearsals is enthralling, and Wiseman captures it with a veteran’s eye — it should come as no surprise that he has 38 films and 43 years under his belt as a director.

These long stretches of rehearsal are broken by brief segments focusing on the practical side of the company, usually featuring artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre. Although the subject of these sequences — scheduling, pensions and negotiations with guest choreographers — are far from riveting, they provide a real-world balance to the almost surreal world of the dance studio. Wiseman’s goal seems to be to capture all aspects of the ballet, from the performers to the post-show cleanup, and aside from his well-chosen angles, he does little to glamourize it.

It’s easy to accuse Wiseman of overindulgence, and those who naturally dislike the worlds of classical and modern dance are unlikely to get swept away by La Danse’s treatment of the subject. The lack of a clear beginning or end, let alone an overarching narrative, leaves the interpretation completely in the hands of the audience, and that’s a large task to expect of skeptics. But for those with even a vague interest, the film is something of a masterpiece, revealing a side of the artistic process that all but the most gifted dancers are unlikely to see in person. Yes, there are moments when it feels like the rehearsals will never end, that the performances will never make sense and that exhaustion will overwhelm any artistic brilliance — but isn’t that how rehearsals are supposed to feel?

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