La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

Time Out New York Project: Issue #736, November 5-11, 2009


Dir. Frederick Wiseman. 2009. N/R. 2hrs 39mins. In French and English, with subtitles. Documentary.

Those hip to the methods of documentarian Frederick Wiseman—no narration, no identifying titles, full immersion in a locale-cum-institution—will know what to expect from this two-and-a-half-hour exploration of the Paris Opera Ballet. The director and his crew unobtrusively wind their way through every nook and cranny of the company’s vast headquarters (the 19th-century Palais Garnier), allowing the accumulation of detail and everyday incident to speak for the essence of the establishment.

Wiseman’s films are as much living organisms as they are subjective portraits. The meat of La Danse is the rehearsals, performances and business meetings contemplated at length, though equal emphasis is given to peripheral figures such as the beekeeper who plies his trade on the Palais’s roof or the school of fish who swim in the building’s waterlogged catacombs. These varied scenes of life are typically separated by static-shot montages of empty hallways and staircases, as if Wiseman is working his way through the bloodstream of a singular entity to get to its heart or brain. There’s no summative revelation at the end of the journey, just the sense that we’ve come to a deeper understanding of one integral human endeavor among many.—Keith Uhlich