October 20, 2010
As anyone who works in the elusive mire that is “the arts” will know, the work is hard and the compensation not always entirely desirable. Knowing just how difficult it is to embark upon and maintain a career as an artist and understanding the discipline and dedication each gifted individual must give of themselves in order to “succeed” is precisely what Frederick Wiseman’s documentary La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (2009) is all about. Showing various “behind the scenes” footage from the struggles to cut through bureaucratic red tape to the tiresome necessity of endless rehearsals, La Danse is an exemplary portrait of the true slog that goes on behind the grand closed doors of so prestigious a dance academy as the Paris Opera Ballet.
The finished product is “a gift to the public” and the thought behind the giving of this gift is a collective, tireless pursuit of perfection. From hand-beading seamstress to cafeteria chef, everyone who works at the Paris Opera Ballet is part of a greater whole striving for the absolute best; for both themselves and for the audiences who will come to witness the final product. Very much like a carefully constructed building (and we are reminded of this intermittently as Wiseman shows us the corridors, staircases, exterior architectural design and other foundational elements of the literal building that houses the company), the whole is only so strong as its individual parts. Not quite a socialist outlook, but certainly an argument for the prevailing presence of the body politic as a whole and how its strength is derived of its solidarity, La Danse offers a glimpse into how individuals can be stronger as a group and how they can, if they work for it, reach collective goals.
France is a progressive nation when it comes to the arts and their strengths across many artistic disciplines from literature, to dance, to film and fine art (to name but a few forms) is testament to this. Their success in this area owing largely to the standard that must be met in order for further resources to then become available. Both a matter of public and private funding, France maintains its word standard and reputation by ensuring each individual falls in line with the shared goal of absolute artistic excellency.
It is no coincidence either that Wiseman has chosen ballet as the subject for a documentary on the strength of the artist; the physical strength required for ballet is immense and both the poise and elegance with which the dancers move in rehearsal as in production is truly incredible; their physical strength a manifestation of their stoical disposition as they continue to strive for excellence and reject complacency in lieu of their already outstanding achievements. The director of the company tells her dancers, “the continuity of the ballet will help you”, meaning that the standards of excellency filter down to individual strength. Furthermore, in their pursuit of a better “retirement system” (most dancers retire much younger than other professionals, often at forty, younger even than most artists in other disciplines due to the physical demands of the work), their “special differences” which stem from “the consciousness formed in our school” is ultimately what they must both rely on and continue to fight to produce.
An engaging and enlightening documentary, La Danse includes rehearsal and performance footage from Paquita, The Nutcracker, Genus, Medea, The House of Bernarda Alba, Romeo and Juliet, and Orpheus and Eurydyce.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
June 2, 2010
Liminal Vision, like its author, was born in the UK but its identity and sense of ‘home’ has always been Australia. So moving back to Melbourne it seemed only appropriate that the first official blog post following the big move would look at visual material that contemplates the issue of identity politics and, more specifically, how they pertain to this city, for Melbourne is the new foundation upon which the cultural content for this blog will build.
The St Kilda Film Festival, though semi-international in content, is ultimately a local festival in terms of its historical existence; its primary source of funding and support owing to the City of Port Phillip. As such, it was something of a pleasant surprise for me to see the festival assume a fair portion of responsibility for post-colonial issues embedded in its contextual cultural locality.
The City of Port Phillip is an historically significant place in Melbourne, and as Victoria’s foremost port it is an important site within the context of Australian “settlement”, thus today it pulsates as a palimpsest. In accordance with the City of Port Phillip; Open Channel, Film Victoria and The Torch Project teamed up to create a short documentary film about a ten minute dance piece, on a mere $10,000 budget no less, its moral project aspiring to “revive local Indigenous traditions” and “make something culturally relevant”.
Introduced first by Festival Director Paul Harris, and then handed over to Hank Kerr, the principal dancer in the piece, the audience was welcomed not to the screening but to the land. Spoken in the Boonwurrung dialect, then translated into English, Kerr’s words were kind and open, ”Welcome to my country, our great bay… I welcome you to our land…the spirit of our traditions.” It was refreshing to see an establishment support the truth that this great land belongs to its Indigenous people and that Westerners are privileged to be here. But what followed was of even greater interest to me; Frank O’Connor, Mayor of Port Phillip, when he came to speak, used the powerful linguistic discourse “us” and “them”, but in a new and transformative way. Having lived in the UK where “us” and “them” is sadly synonymous with the BNP (British National Party) in the first instance, it was a revelation to hear an altered usage whereby “us” was replaced so simply with “we” and “them” replaced with “their” so that the discourse was productive rather than destructive. Respectfully reiterating that much of “their” culture had been lost through the process of colonisation, and that “we” have a responsibility to help in reviving “their” culture, as well as creating a connection between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the Mayor’s words were sincere and poignant. Perhaps to Australian readers who have lived at home through the initiation of Reconciliation this might seem less than remarkable, but to someone whose last experience of living in the country was under the Howard government, it was quite simply a very moving and significant moment; a sign that more than two hundred years since “settlement” began, the country has at least begun to heal.
The film and dance are both titled Lu’Arn and reveal the near lost story of a Boonwurrung man who followed the feather of a swan on a physical and spiritual journey down the Birrarung to learn the Law developed by his ancestors, given to men to care for Country. Lu’Arn becomes a demi-god of spiritual enlightenment to stand up for and look after Country, a story told by Aunty Carolyn Briggs to choreographer Jacob Boehme who is responsible for creating the contemporary dance piece that re-creates and re-adapts the integrity of the past into a new language for a new audience of primarily non-Indigenous Australians. This is one such revelation the film provides; the difficulty of transition due to the diminished population of Boonwurrung people in Victoria, and the subsequent art of the dance not having been practiced in almost 300 years. To its credit the film reveals this difficulty as merely another challenge that can be overcome when a moral project is so determined, and significant to the Australian people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
One of the more touching moments in the film is where Kerr speaks about his experience of performing the piece in St Kilda where he says he used to be one of the “parkies” – demonstrating further that individuals and our country as a whole can, over time, begin to heal where “we” have caused damage to “their” culture, traditions and land. But even with this productive linguistic discourse whereby “we” and “their” are used respectfully and rightfully there is future hope for another linguistic discourse whereby “we” might come to include us all in a more positive and cohesive cultural context; Aunty Carolyn Briggs’ words so honest and hopeful they brought the right kind of tear to my eye, “We can move forward. We are different, but we can be one, as Australians… From the old to the new our culture allows that because culture can’t stagnate… the elements, values, beliefs, systems, customs, culture, still alive today, just in new forms.” For all our country’s past mistakes, Lu’Arn suggests there is hope for the future, and if the film and the dance it documents are any mark of things to come – visually beautifully, socially fluid and politically resonant - then it is without doubt that I say I am pleased, and moved, to be welcomed to where I too call home.