The Paris Opera Ballet is one of the world’s great ballet companies and one of France’s principal cultural institutions. With unprecedented access, legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman takes us behind-the-scenes showing us how a ballet company functions: from administration, technical support, and classes, to the rehearsal and/or performance of seven acclaimed ballets — Paquita by Pierre Lacotte, The Nutcracker by Rudolf Nureyev, Genus by Wayne McGregor, Medea by Angelin Preljocaj, The House of Bernarda Alba by Mats Ek, Romeo and Juliet by Sasha Waltz and Orpheus and Eurydyce by Pina Bausch.

A fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the world of ballet.

Veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s coldly compelling La danse – Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris chronicles the construction of seven modern interpretations of classic ballets. Utterly disinterested in the dancers as anything other than pliable tools of the choreographers, Wiseman forgoes emotion for precision in a film that’s all about the process of building an ethereal balletic vision.

Over the film’s exhausting 156 minutes, Wiseman’s and his longtime cinematographer John Davey maintain a detached presence in the rehearsal halls, executive offices and, eventually, vast performance space of the Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris. Founded in the 1660s, the current creative team is preparing freshly-conceived renditions of Nureyev’s The Nutcracker Suite, Pina Bausch's Orpheus and Eurydice and a dance adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, to name a few.

The aesthetic of the opening frames is cavernous, almost-medieval, as Wiseman explores the dim corridors of the company’s home, the 19th-century, neo-Baroque Palais Garnier opera house.

Some may take a while to warm to Wiseman’s attention to detail (understandably, some viewers may not at all), but the film fascinates when it captures the thought processes of the choreographers as they manipulate the individual dancers, both physically and mentally. Long periods of the rehearsal section capture such minute considerations as to the inward-or-outward positioning of a dancer’s instep or the tautness of a ballerina’s stomach muscles. One of the great achievements of the film is that it educates the viewer into the discipline of dance; on more than one occasion, this reviewer (who had no knowledge of classic dance whatsoever) would cringe upon recognising an irregular misstep or lazily-raised forearm.

Audiences attuned to the shrieking histrionics of modern dance as portrayed on certain reality-show formats, or indeed, in Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s look into the recent New York revival of 'A Chorus Line’, Every Little Step (2008), may not tolerate the coldness of the French artistry on display here. The occasional flare-ups between dancers or disagreements over technique fought out between choreographers occur at such subdued levels, these glimpses into the heads and hearts of the troupe are frustratingly fleeting.

But one can’t help feel that this is exactly as it should be for a company as prestigious as the Paris Opera Ballet. Though some critics have derided the utter lack of connection the film affords the personalities of the company (with the possible exception of artistic director, Brigitte Lefèvre), Wiseman’s film suggests that personalities are frowned upon, that ego and id are dispensable and entirely at the service of the dance.

La danse – Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris is the second time Wiseman has explored the world of classical ballet at considerable length – his acclaimed 1995 film, Ballet, explored the inner sanctum of the American Ballet Theatre with a similar aloof reverence. Both works celebrate the perfect form of the young men and women charged with bringing elegance and majesty to the creation of classical dancing. Wiseman has captured the experience of wandering through a living gallery of performance, adroitly defining not only why ballet is one of the most beautiful of human endeavours, but also why it is the most impenetrable of all our art forms.


2 hours 39 min
In Cinemas 21 October 2010,