Unlike his other recent dance films Ballet and La danse, Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse, a look at a venerable Parisian burlesque club released in 2011, starts not with rehearsals, but the performance itself. With a bang we’re shown the naked bodies at work, as if to explain, “Yes, there are boobs here. Get over it.” The other two films showed us the process of creation, all the little things, all the effort and hard work that go into creating a stage performance. They alternate footage of the dancers being coached with their painstaking preparations, slowly building a performance and culminating with the final stage version. Crazy Horse gives us plenty of that same backstage detail: costumes, makeup, wigs, contentious management meetings, slyly filmed interviews, but mixes in fully-staged performances at regular intervals. This is by necessity: one of the main difficulties the director, Philippe Decouflé, is having is that he must design a whole new show while at the same time being open for business every night. But it breaks up the flow of the work, instead of organized creation we get musical numbers breaking up a documentary narrative. Like a vérité Cabaret with significantly fewer Nazis.
The shows are apparently the pinnacle of their style, “nude chic”. This is apparently a thing that fashionable people do: go to a club and drink champagne and watch naked women dance to mediocre pop music. I’m reminded of Jean Renoir’s dramatization of exactly the same activity in French Cancan, set 100 years earlier. The Renoir is a joyous celebration of vice, of sex and dance and music as life itself. In our more explicit age, where there is very little left that is concealed, the moral question remains of whether that licentiousness is a good thing, although it is framed from a much different side than were the puritanical mores of the past. Namely the question is: is the burlesque good for women? The artistic director, Ali, filmed by Wiseman giving a couple of third-party interviews, is very insistent on the empowering nature of the performances. As he says, he’s fascinated by the ways in which women can project the ideal versions of themselves on the stage. One has to question though how ideal is an art form that developed out of the brothel, one that literally depends upon the objectification of the female form. One dance has the women in scant military outfits, marching and saluting, a display of domination. Another has a woman tied up and suspended in the air. She does some great rope tricks, acrobatic and lovely, but she’s still a woman tied up, on a stage, displayed for an audience.
It’s the objectification that seems to fascinate Wiseman the most. The bodies are often shown in silhouette, or if not, with a dazzling light display: colored polka dots, myriad stars, horizontal lines, or even simply with parts of the bodies lit while the other remain in shadow. The effect is one of slicing up the body into individual parts. Less than parts even: curves, lines. Not the female form (and it’s impossible not to notice that all the women have the exact same form: no natural variety to be found here), but form itself. The effect is at once beautiful and completely anti-erotic (at least as far as I’m concerned, your mileage may vary, I make no judgements). I am, however, perplexed at how the segmentation of a woman’s body into its constituent shapes and shadows is supposed to be empowering, even if it does serve an artistic purpose beyond mere titillation.
There’s a short but telling scene of the dancers backstage, watching what appears to be a youtube compilation of on-stage errors by Russian ballet dancers. A blooper reel where dancers collide, fall down, struggle to lift each other and trip as they collapse off-stage. The women snicker at the, admittedly hilarious, disasters. But there’s a nasty edge to it, as there is in all such laughing at others’ misfortune. The burlesque of the Crazy Horse is a vulgar version of the ballet, the dancers work in an artistic netherworld that isn’t quite “art” and isn’t quite stripping. Both forms of dance prize form and shape over natural human anatomy, though the ballet features slightly more clothing and a whole lot more technique and athleticism, as well as, pointedly, male dancers every bit as much on display as the women. Is their laughing at the ballet an act of aggression, of bringing the snobs down to their level? Or is it the laughter of identification, of equivalence? A recognition that even the stars of the Russian ballet too can fall on their shapely asses. Wiseman doesn’t answer these questions, of course. At least not explicitly. And nor should he.