The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

January 12, 2010

Review — La Danse at The Nick — (Don’t miss this beautiful film)+ Surprise Romance Columbia Style

Don’t be surprised if you feel oddly out of place when viewing Frederick Wiseman’s film, La Danse, opening at the Nickelodeon Theatre on Wednesday night.  The sensations evoked when watching a Wiseman film must be akin to something one might experience in a limited time travel situation.  Limited in that the subject matter and singular grouping of locations never change – think the various wings and wards of a hospital, the corridors and classrooms of a high school – but approximating time travel in that the viewer may find herself plopped down at any point in a controlled period of time – yesterday, next Thursday, earlier today at lunch – and witness to any variety of the mundane and the exotic – in this case, dying silk in a pot over a gas flame, vacuuming the loge in Paris’s Palais Garnier, or peeking into the sweaty rehearsal of Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s La Maison de Bernada by the étoiles of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Transforming the viewer into the voyeur is, to a great degree, the point of documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s films.  And he has made almost forty of them, with objects of study ranging from a hospital, high school, racetrack, or zoo, to welfare, meat, the deaf, and domestic violence.  In every case, Wiseman settles himself for four to six weeks at the particular institution under observation, with very little preparation, and simply begins filming.  When he accumulates a hundred or so feet of film, he stops.  Then the real work of cutting and editing and arranging begins.  The result:  a brilliant amalgam of recorded experience, often poignant and beautiful, yet completely lacking in contextual information, exposition, or any kind of narrative arc.

La Danse (2009) is Wiseman’s latest effort in the observational mode of film-making, sometimes called direct cinema, and it may be his most beautiful.  His subject matter this time is the day-to-day activity under the roof of the neo-Baroque architectural masterpiece that is Paris’s Palais Garnier, the home of the famous Paris Opera Ballet.

Wiseman drops us in to the commotion of the ballet company as it prepares for six upcoming performances : the afore-mentioned Mats Ek project from the Cullberg Ballet, based on the Spanish play, La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernard Alba) by Federico Garcia Lorca; Orphée et Eurydice (Orpheus and Eurydice) by the recently deceased Pina Bausch, famous for, among other things, her influence in the development of the Tanztheatre (dance theatre) style; Pierre Lacotte’s  restored classic Paquita; Angelin Preljočaj’s contemporary ballet, Le Songe de Mérdée; the German choreographer Sasha Waltz’s abstract setting of Romeo and Juliet to a Berlioz symphonic score rather than the traditional Prokofiev; and, the sleek 1967 version of Casse-Noisette (The Nutcracker) by Rudolf Nureyev, rather than Petipa, which most Americans are accustomed to seeing.

In French with English subtitles, Wiseman brings a heavily-detailed intimacy to this project, often shooting from the vantage of just outside the door to the activity he wants us to see.   We are literally peeking in – spying on what’s going on.  What we get to see is not the always perfect presentation the Paris Opera Ballet puts on stage.  We are privy to the imperfect rehearsals, dancers actually learning the choreography, complaining about their corrections, becoming frustrated with themselves, their partners, and their ballet masters.

But there is far more than dance to Wiseman’s film, as his camera plays homage to almost every brick in the building of an arts institution:  the custodians, the costumers, the painters, the Director of Dance, Brigitte Lefévre, whose stylish red coiffure shows up in frame after frame – even the beekeeper on the roof.  One scene takes us meticulously through the mid-day meal as dancers approach the cafeteria and we are shown shots of their various entrée choices, the boredom on the cashier’s face as she collects money, the dancers leaving full and fresh and ready to rehearse again.

And then there are the dancers.

The Paris Opera Ballet company is divided into five ascending tiers for dancers, beginning with the quadrilles and rising to the etoiles – the stars, or principal dancers of the company.  Wiseman makes use throughout the film of a camera angle which shoots down one or another exceedingly long hallway and forever up exhausting stairways, perhaps as a metaphorical commentary on the inordinate work which goes into becoming a member of this prestigious company.  As viewers we get to see the likes of such luminaries as étoiles Marie-Agnés Gillot, Laëtitia Pujol, Aurélie DuPond, Agnés Letestu, Delphine Moussin, and more.  And ultimately, we get to see these amazing talents present the product of their labors under Marc Chagall’s glorious opera house ceiling.

I have had the good fortune to sit under the largest piece of work of my favorite artist, Marc Chagall, before and witness the Paris Opera Ballet in person.  I remember the massive six-ton chandelier that drops from the Chagall ceiling’s center – not literally, mind you, though the 1896 accidental crash of one of the Opera House’s chandeliers did inspire Gaston Leroux to pen the classic Phantom of the Opera. And I remember the gilded Grand Staircase, the Grand Foyer, and all the gold and velvet and overwhelming sumptuousness.  I remember seeing for the first time, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (The Young Man and Death). But with dance, it’s difficult to remember more than the sensations you experience as you watch it.  Sure, your mind captures images and freezes them in time – the height of a grand jeté, the pristine stillness when, en pointe, a dancer exquisitely pauses between phrases – no movement, time stands still.

Watching La Danse brought this all together for me – it connected the dots in my memory, gave me context and background and a renewed appreciation for what makes the best of the best – the best.  It made my heart swell.

Don’t miss the opportunity to be a voyeur and see the Paris opera Ballet backstage and on-stage in La Danse, showing at our Nickelodeon for the next week.  For tickets, contact the Nick at www.nickelodeon.org.

~~~

And if you love dance in Columbia like I do – if you love the people who dance it and the ones who do the work that allow them to – then make your reservation for the 5:30 show on Friday evening, January 15th.  Larry is doing a pre-talk and there is an absolutely beautiful surprise which I promise you will warm your heart until the day you die.  It’s a secret – I can’t say more.  But I can say, don’t miss this film and please do try to make it on Friday at 5:30.  You won’t be disappointed.

Advertisements

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.