La danse is a riveting documentary by fly-on-the-wall master Frederick Wiseman, about the Paris National Opera ballet. Its long stretches of wordless dance sequences (rehearsal and performance), from the classic Nutcracker to work by Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz, are of course a lovely source of wonder and gawking for anyone who’s interested in theater and body work. It’s fascinating to see how the body understands and expresses, almost without the help of words.
Wiseman cuts into the rehearsals at the point where the dance moves are already reasonably well worked out, which is great to look at, but deprives the audience of the early stage of rehearsing with its many wrong starts and failures. The dancers do take center stage of course, but they wouldn’t be able to do their thing without all the work that goes on behind it.
Not only does Wiseman poke his camera into the bowels of the building, he also shows painters renewing the ceiling, seamstresses working on elaborate costumes, the cafeteria staff serving food, a labor representative explaining details of a new contract to the corps de ballet, and administrative meetings about new pieces and old sponsors.
LA DANSE | Directed by Frederick Wiseman (France, USA 2009). Documentary. Opens December 30.