On Frederick Wiseman’s Ballet

Venerable documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet from 2009 is one of my favorite films of the century so far, so you can imagine my surprise when I happened upon this film while accidentally finding myself in the Wiseman section of Scarecrow Video last week. Released in 1995 and covering parts of 1992 and 1993 in the operation of the American Ballet Theater, in structure and content it is essentially identical to the later film, running about ten minutes longer (just shy of three hours).

Both films are cinéma vérité chronicles of the rehearsals and backstage preparations that make up the day to day routines of the company. There are practices, classes, physical therapy, costuming and makeup sessions and eventually fully staged performances. Wiseman punctuates the passage of time occasionally with outside shots of the home city (New York in the case of Ballet, Paris, of course, for the other film), as if to give us a nudge: as we walk down the street the buildings we pass by and pay no attention to may contain artists at work. More frequently transitions between the various milieux of the company are made with shots of the dancers lounging or stretching, reading a book, listening to music, checking a call sheet, going over routines in their memories, looking nervous and scared and bored. In Ballet there is less of an emphasis on the monetary side of things, with only a couple of phone calls where company director Jane Hermann (hilariously) yells at the Met for screwing them over serving as a reminder that this, too, is a business.

More poignant are a couple of scenes of applying dancers, one being advised that they’d like her to join, another being told that now is not the right time for him. In both instances, the man doing the explaining uses the same gentle tone of voice, and the prospective dancers sport the same expression of doom. As well, a lengthy scene of a dancer being instructed by a teacher (who, if I understand correctly, was herself a world-famous dancer in her youth) is followed by the student dancer taking a break and walking to the side of a woman where a father and his maybe nine year old daughter are waiting for the woman to autograph a pair of shoes for her. This dancer maybe a star, a leading ballerina in one of the top company’s in the world and an idol to aspiring dancers, but backstage she’s just another student, needing to practice and work and improve. Maybe it’s just the difference in setting between New York and Paris, between a largely American cast and a largely European one, but the ABT shown here feels lighter, looser, more fun than the Paris Ballet did. Or maybe its just that Wiseman finds some time in the second half of the film, between touring performances, to send us out with the dancers as they act as tourists: to the beach, to a funky nightclub, to an amusement park in Copenhagen.

The real gem of Ballet, though, is Agnes DeMille, in the last year of her life, choreographing (from a wheelchair) what would end up being her final work (The Other, with Amanda McKerrow). We get to sit in on an interview with DeMille (a sneaky way for Wiseman to get his subjects to talk like they would in a less strictly vérité documentary is to show them being interviewed by someone else, a newspaper or magazine reporter), as she talks about dance and getting older and the integration of dance into a narrative whole (you can’t just perform a dance in isolation because it might not make sense out of context. Of course, this is exactly what Wiseman does throughout the film). But better yet is watching her work, the way she and McKerrow and their assistants work to bring one short, gorgeous scene to life, the way she coaxes McKerrow to flap her arms in just the right way so she looks like like a chicken and more “like something that’s absolutely broken and stuck up in the wind.” This is one of the rehearsed dances we don’t get a full stage version of in the second half of the film, where it and DeMille are sadly missing. But after seeing this one stretch of movement come together over the first half of the film, the final, almost finished version is heart-breaking.

The performances at the end of the film are pretty spectacular. They were performed and filmed the next year in Athens and Copenhagen after a rough patch for the company (not at all discussed in the film: the New York Times notes that the company underwent a change of director and had serious financial trouble, and also that Wiseman couldn’t include any of the New York season because he couldn’t get permission to film at the Met). They include more well-known and recognizable ballets than the ones featured in La danse. We see a bit of The Rite of Spring (suitably audacious in costumes and earthy sexuality) and a bit of Romeo and Juliet (passionate and lovely). It’s what you’d expect from a ballet company that was trying desperately to draw an audience. Obvious works to be sure, but to my knowing-nothing-about-dancing eye, pretty inventive and shockingly emotional nonetheless. Most striking might be the sounds Wiseman captures, not just of the music, hardly at all of the music (there isn’t even an orchestra at the Athens performance: Wiseman gives us a close-up of the giant tape recorder filling in for the band), but rather the grunts and thuds and squeaks of the dancers’ shoes on the surface of the stage. The sound of gravity in an artform that aspires to weightlessness.

Still though, the rehearsals remain the most compelling part of the film, even more so than they were in La danse, and I wonder why that is. Is it just the novelty of it? The footage reminds us that dance, that performance, is tremendously hard work, something we may forget when we only see the finished product, and so getting a glimpse, however brief or free of context, of everything that goes into a finished work is something new, something we haven’t seen before. Or is it the sheer joy of deconstruction, of taking a performance a part to see how it is put together, like an eight-year-old with a mechanical clock? Or is it a reaction against the slickness of our modern entertainment, that in the sweep of CGI and production values, we’ve lost the chaotic frustration of effort, the little imperfections that serve as reminders of our own humanity and what wonders other humans, with enough effort and inspiration, can achieve? Probably.

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