The Old Man and the Paris Opera Ballet

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 2 2009 5:14 PM

The Old Man and the Paris Opera Ballet

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.



La Danse

, a 158-minute documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet, opens this week for a two-week run at New York’s

, followed by a national rollout through December. If you know the director’s work already, that sentence stands on its own as an argument for seeing the film. For the past 42 years, Wiseman has been patiently and rigorously documenting the life of assorted institutions, including homes for the criminally insane (

), public schools (

High School

), the Belmont racetrack (


), and hospital intensive-care units (

Near Death

). Without voice-over, intertitles, music, or other directorial interference, Wiseman enters a world with his camera (usually 16mm; here, HD video) and lets that world define itself. As a result, his films have a sober, meditative quality that makes other documentaries—even the smart ones—seem like glib propaganda. Given Wiseman’s fascination with both institutional culture and extralinguistic behavior (his subjects tend to say one thing with words and something else entirely with their bodies), it makes sense that he’d be drawn in his late career to the world of professional dance (his 1998 film


chronicled a season at New York’s American Ballet Theater).

If you don’t like watching great dancers rehearse, you probably won’t appreciate

La Danse

—but, honestly, if you don’t like watching great dancers rehearse, what kind of life-loathing dullard are you? Dance is one of the few art forms that can be more fascinating to watch in the process of being made than it is in finished form. (Filmmaking is another—even a bad movie can make for a worthy making-of featurette.) But in between seeing some of the world’s best dancers practice everything from

The Nutcracker Suite

to work by the modern choreographers


, viewers get a glimpse of all aspects of the company: the lunchroom, where dancers chow down on surprisingly large plates of steamed fish and

crème brûlée

, and the costume room where seamstresses stitch, iron, and hand-bead tutus. At a board meeting, an American board member bargains with the company’s stern artistic director for perks for the biggest benefactors. (Could they come and observe a live rehearsal?

Absolument pas

.) And in a reminder that these seemingly ethereal beings are also laborers, a principal dancer visits the director to complain about her overwhelming workload: "I’m not 25 anymore," she points out, a commonplace that has a whole different ring when your career is guaranteed to be over by age 40. When that dancer's knees go out, she should consider picking up a film camera and reinventing herself as a documentary filmmaker. Frederick Wiseman is about to turn 80, and he shows no sign of tiring.



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