La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris

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.

La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 21 through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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