Monday, December 21, 2009

La Danse

My review of La Danse appears online at and plays at Vancity Theatre to early January. Go see it!

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
★★★★ —Andrea Warner

Frederick Wiseman's La Danse is an unusual sort of documentary. It drops the viewer deep behind the scenes of the Paris Opera Ballet for almost three hours, without any guidance. The audience is simply offered image after image of the ballet’s inner sanctum: bandaged feet, awkward conversations, and all.

Wiseman pays careful attention to all aspects of the day-to-day running of what is, ultimately, a machine. Maintenance people scrape plaster from ceilings, cafeteria workers serve food, costumers bend over tables to hand-sew intricate bead-work, a weirdly wonderful beekeeper atop the ballet’s roof harvests honeycomb... All this is juxtaposed with scenes of dancers sweating and suffering through intense practices.

Suitably, long stretches of La Danse are devoted to the dancers, but we almost never get to know any of them personally. In fact, at no point does anyone address the camera, nor does Wiseman feel the need to provide viewers with any real narrative structure. We get to know the dancers by watching them practice, seeing how they react to criticism, and their interactions with instructors and choreographers. We then see how the practice pays off, in beautifully rendered dress rehearsal scenes, where props and costumes bring the dances to full and vivid life.

Wiseman’s camera also takes us inside administrative meetings, as the marketing team and the company’s artistic director seek incentives for wealthy benefactors. When one marketer mentions a meeting with Lehman Brothers, the major face of the global financial collapse, it’s a reminder of the number of creative casualties caused by the economic meltdown.

If you can’t tell a plié from a pirouette, you might be tempted to shy away from La Danse, but you’d be missing out on one of the most intelligent and riveting films of 2009.

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