I can think of few finer pleasures than watching great dancing in the movies. Can there be anything more elating than a number starring Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson? And yet the sad truth is that most movie directors don't have a clue how to feature dance – how to make it come alive without decimating its essential spatial integrity with a lot of distracting close-ups and cutaways. Dancers were meant to be shown in full.
One of the many wonderful things about the new Fred Wiseman documentary "La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet" is the way it reveals dancers in all their hard-won, full-bodied glory. Wiseman previously made a documentary in 1993 about the American Ballet Theater, and he understands that the drama of dance is, quite simply, in the dance, not in camera pyrotechnics. When he shows these supernally gifted ballet performers in rehearsal, he lets their movements do the communicating. And why not? Their language is as eloquent as words could ever be. Wiseman is clearly in thrall to these dancers, but, as in all his films, his eye is relentlessly scrupulous. "La Danse" is the work of an ascetic sensualist. His unwavering eye clarifies for us the meaning of motion.
"La Danse" is Wiseman's 38th film in 40 years, and it confirms his place as our greatest documentarian. No other American director alive has demonstrated so continually such a fierce sympathy for the lives of people. His movies, including such masterpieces as "High School," "Hospital," "Basic Training," Welfare," "Juvenile Court," and "Domestic Violence," are all about how institutions frame the human experience. (One reason Wiseman does not enjoy large-scale public recognition is because his movies, following their theatrical or televised showings, are generally available only through his Cambridge, Mass.-based company, Zipporah films. www.zipporah.com.)
Centered in the monumental Palais Garnier, the Paris Ballet is one of the world's great ballet companies, and also one of the least traveled. Their U.S. tours are few. Wiseman is offering up what appears to be a privileged glimpse into a secret society. Despite the arduousness of the training and the running criticism of the coaches, many of them former dancers, something ineffable hangs in the air. The greatest of these dancers, including Agnès Letestu, Mathieu Ganio, Nicolas Le Riche, and Marie-Agnès Gillot, seem possessed by their gifts. Dancing doesn't merely complete them. Dancing is their apotheosis.
The mystery of "La Danse" is that, even when we see a performance broken down into its tiniest steps, it remains inexplicable. (As usual, Wiseman provides no voice-over narration or, until the closing credits, any identifying titles.) The movie turns us into the film equivalent of close readers, and yet no matter how intently we gaze at a movement, there is always something that eludes us. (A coach explains to a dancer, "You go up beautifully, but I miss the weight when you go down," and my first thought was, "Yes, of course, why didn't I see that?") Wiseman doesn't romanticize anything. He doesn't have to – the beauty of what he shows us speaks for itself.
It does so even when we are presented with the mundane rigors of the Paris Ballet – the fundraising meetings, the discussions about retirement benefits and pensions, the cafeteria lunch breaks, the seamstresses sewing ornaments into costumes. Wiseman's movies are often implicitly about how people survive, somehow, the stultifications of bureaucracy. With "La Danse," they not only survive, they triumph. One can almost hear Wiseman laughing: This art is so indestructible that it vanquishes even boring committee planning sessions.
In "La Danse," Wiseman transports us inexorably from rehearsal to finished performance. The effect, over the course of two-and-a-half hours, is like seeing a rough draft coalesce into a thing of surpassing delicacy. Watching the ballerina Delphine Moussin work her way up to Medea in all her bloodied beauty is the essence of what this marvelous movie is all about. It's a celebration of the alchemies of artistic transfiguration. Grade: A