La Danse : The Paris Opera Ballet
Released in the UK on 23rd April 2010
Running time 159 minutes
La Danse is a film that goes everywhere at the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the world’s greatest companies. Seven ballets are used as the basis of the film, showing you classes, rehearsals and performance footage. The ballet’s are : Paquita (Pierre Lacotte), The Nutcracker (Rudolf Nureyev), Genus (Wayne McGregor), Medea (Angelin Preljocaj), The House of Bernarda Alba (Mats Ek), Romeo & Juliet (Sasha Waltz) and Orpheus and Eurydyce (Pina Bausch). As you can see the selection is predominantely contemporary, something the Artistic Director picks up in one of her many meetings with staff and dancers when she says that she is “unsettled” as very few young people attend contemporary classes and yet they are the very classes where they could learn the technique. The company set their work three years ahead so that they can be rights cleared.
Frederick Wiseman’s film needs no explanation – and none is given – and so you find yourself staring down many a long, empty corridor or drainpipe, occasionally rising to the lofty heights of the beguiling Paris skyline and the beekeeper tending his hives on the roof.
If you are familiar with the Company then this approach of dumping you right in the action (or a long corridor) will work for you; if you are not then the subtitles are there to help with the French language but the rest of the work is largely left up to you. What will you get out of it ?
The Étoiles (stars) featured are : Émilie Cozette|Aurélie Dupont|Dorothée Gilbert|Marie-Agnès Gillot|Agnès Letestu|Delphine Moussin|Clairemarie Osta|Laetitia Pujol| Kader Belarbi| Jérémie Belingard|Mathieu Ganio|Manuel Legris|Nicholas Le Riche|José Martinez|Hervé Moreau|Benjamin Pech|Wilfried Romoli|Isabelle Ciaravola|Mathias Heymann.
The film also features some of Les Premiers Danseurs (The First Dancers), who are : Nolwenn Daniel|Ève Grinsztajn|Mélanie Hurel|Myriam Ould-Braham|Stéphanie Romberg|Muriel Zusperreguy|Yann Bridard|Stéphanie Bullion|Christophe Duquenne|Karl Paquette|Stéphanie Phavorin|Emmanuel Thibault.
You may recognise some of the dancers names, for example Manuel Legris, who was seen recently in the UK dancing spectacularly well at the Nureyev gala.
The ballets and their choreography might be less familiar, but that’s what makes this film different, and worth watching. Wayne McGregor is a choreographer most people are familiar with and here you can see him in the rehearsal process, marking the timing with clicks and strange vocal sounds to keep the dancers on the music. He works with a female dancer with beautiful feet, as they practice a pas de deux over and over again.
For a lot of the time, there is no music, you just arrive in the middle of a class, or rehearsal – Laetitia (Pujol) being told “no arabesque!”, the aim of the choreographer being that “the final result has to be a gift to the public.”
I found the dancers wearing mostly very unattractive practice clothes and thought how wonderful the dancers in the UK dress for class and rehearsals by comparison. Their building is cluttered around the edges – though the auditorium and entrance are spectacular, in the studios my eye was continually distracted by the endless lines of detritus marking the perimeters.
The Artistic Director admits that the company is hierarchical in one meeting, talks to a dancer worried about her workload in another (and mentions that she has lost weight at the end of it), then we are off to the costume department where they are sewing, pining, cutting, dyeing and ironing. There is even a close up shot of a worker painstakingly applying jewels to a tutu with tweezers. On then to the canteen for lunch, where we are shown several plates of food, inexplicably not forgetting the baguette shredding machine !
The Artistic Director has many meetings where we burst in, in the middle of proceedings. In one such meeting she is explaining that people don’t understand the troupe, that to be a dancer you have to be “half nun, half dancer”, and that “the dancer is the race car and the driver”. Then she attends a company meeting with the dancers to discuss reform of the retirement system and how the dancers should regard the changes.
The film is a mash-up of a dancers daily life at the Paris Opera Ballet, and you get the sense that it’s very much like any other company – protective of its hard won reputation and employing dancers who will work extremely hard, often under a critical gaze, and come out smiling at the end of the day.