La Danse? La Revue

7 Feb

So I finally got to watch the highly anticipated documentary on the Paris Opera Ballet, La Danse, directed by Frederick Wisemen.  I have to say it wasn’t quite what I expected (for one thing, it is LONG…I knew going in how many minutes it was, but it felt twice as long) and there were some things I found disappointing.  That’s not to say it didn’t have its share of charming moments too and inevitably any accurate portrayal of life is going to have both “cookies and celery” as I like to say…things you like and things you don’t (I challenge you to find me someone who loves raw celery…no dip, no peanut butter or what have you…just plain celery with nothing added.  Such a quest is fated to failure in my opinion.).

One of the issues I had with the documentary was the target audience.  To me, a typical documentary audience has an interest in the topic but a successful filmmaker will take care to render that topic into something both the knowledgeable and the casually interested can understand.  Easier said than done…but I have a hard time believing someone completely new to ballet would be able to follow the film easily.  Names were never given unless someone in the film called someone by name and so unless you’re already familiar with the faces of the Paris Opera Ballet you’re going to get lost.  Furthermore, names of the dances they showed were also not given, so you don’t know who choreographed what or even which piece was what.  I recognized Wayne McGregor, I deduced one piece was Mats Ek’s because there was screaming in it and I was fairly familiar with Paquita.  Meanwhile, I totally didn’t know that Casse-Noisette is French for Nutcracker so I was totally confused because the music was sounding familiar but the costumes were different, and it was further exacerbated by the fact that during rehearsals for the Prince’s variation in The Nutcracker, for some odd reason I kept hearing Prince Florimund’s variation from Sleeping Beauty.  Until someone told me afterward what Casse-Noisette meant, it really was a hot mess in my head.  Damn you Tchaikovsky!

I was not perturbed at all by the lack of commentary or narrative, because it seemed that the goal of the documentary was to film and let be.  There were some questionable additions, like filming workers vacuuming the theater or spackling a hole in the ceiling, but while unimportant to the ballet itself I felt those moments gave a sense of reality to the film; as if you were touring the STUNNING Palais Garnier (of which has a ceiling painted by Marc Chagall that was mentioned in several reviews of La Danse, and I wanted to see it because I saw a Chagall exhibit once in Korea, and of course they showed the ceiling once, for about half a second) and happened to pass such workers along the way.  There were all kinds of interesting shots, like the subterranean labyrinth underneath the building (which had a…pond?  Seriously, it looked like a sewer but there were plants and fish swimming in it.) and apparently someone has a hobby of keeping bees and harvesting honey on top of the building as well.  The documentary as a whole sort of followed a formula where it was mostly rehearsal footage, then some performance footage and each clip of performance footage was followed by a shot of Paris.  Actually I’m pretty sure several people in the audience fell asleep during the first segment of the piece of Médée, and it was a bright shot of outdoor Paris that woke them up.  Somehow I felt that this formula was a little detrimental to the film though, because rather than emphasize the sense of renewal that follows a performance, it made it seem more mundane.  I felt the goal was to clue the audience into the process, but unfortunately the film made the process itself seem less interesting.

What I did love was some of the footage they captured in the costumes shop.  Even though I worked on costumes crews in theatre (high school, nothing professional) to actually see them hand bead tutus and glue individual rhinestones with the same attention to detail and diligence that dancers use in their approach to their technique was really something.  It was somewhat brief, but enough to give you some (but totally inadequate) appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes in to costuming.  I’m surprised they didn’t shoot the fittings, but they did shoot hair and makeup and one of the hairdressers had a WILD set of rainbow dreadlocks.  THAT…was amazing.

As for the dancing itself, there is more than enough raw, peanut butter and dipless rehearsal footage to satisfy the eyes (although I would have liked to have seen more of company classes) and some of the little things that happen in rehearsals were the best parts.  Hilarious exchanged between Pierre Lacotte (choreographer) and Ghislaine Thesmar (who I believe teaches at the Paris Opera Ballet) and the dancers themselves inserted a witty comment or two.  Or a gesture like during the coda for Paquita, as the principal dancer was doing her fouettes, she started travelling forward and one of the members of the corps de ballet stuck out a flat palm as if to push her back.  Plenty of performance footage as well and I thought Mathieu Ganio and Agnes Letestu looked amazing in McGregor’s Genus, looking mechanically alien.  The second segment of Médée was visceral and pretty disturbing with onstage blood as Medea (of Greek myth) murders her children to get revenge on Jason (of Argonaut fame).  It was pretty clear they wanted to show a great contrast in Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire, with several modern works and a couple of classics as well, which emphasizes the company’s identity as one of the most innovative and experimental companies in the world.  Although I am left wondering if they are perhaps pushing the envelope a little too far and not doing enough of the classics…if they’re constantly experimenting, they will inevitably alienate people by not providing enough familiarity.  In fact, that was one of the weaknesses of the film because of the classics they showed, The Nutcracker was very different and Paquita had all kinds of revisions by Lacotte.

Mathieu Ganio and Agnes Letestu in Wayne McGregor's "Genus." Image courtesy of Zipporah Films. This took me like eight tries to upload properly.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the dances they showed (I even find myself less interested in McGregor ballets) but it’s worth the watch just to see the process unfold.  Unless you can wander around Palais Garnier, there’s no other way you can get this kind of access to inner workings of Paris Opera Ballet.

I suppose you could join them.  Good luck with that!

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2 Responses to “La Danse? La Revue”

  1. Aletha July 20, 2010 at 2:18 am #

    I love you writing style, it’s really witty. Also, I don’t know if you know but Pierre Lacotte and Ghislaine Thesmar are married to each other.

    • youdancefunny July 20, 2010 at 11:58 am #

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoy my writing. I did not know they were married…certainly explains their quarrels! 🙂

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