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.
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.