Master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s reputation precedes him in “La Danse — Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris.” It is his 38th film in a series that aired over PBS, including “The High School,” “The Store” and “State Legislature,” all varied topics about different facets of life itself.
Occasionally the award-winning director repeats himself if the subject warrants it, as in “High School II.” He is also intrigued by the dance, since he made “Ballet,” a film about the American Ballet Theater, in 1995. But a few years ago, he decided to try something a little more exotic and turned his eye to the Paris Opera Ballet, which offered a great deal more history and splendor at the Palais Garnier opera house. The results were shown in limited release (it was in Pittsburgh during the big snow storm) and will be shown on WQED on Saturday at 10 p.m. (Warning: it runs three hours, so you may want to set your TiVo or other such device.)
Don’t expect a lot of help, like the names of the dancers or choreographers and the ballets they create — wait until you view it again to try and figure those things out. “La Danse” unfolds like the dance itself, with rhythm and grace and, as in the very best art, a sense of mystery as to where this is all going.
Wiseman also instinctively understands that the dance is not only about the stage performance. So there are democratic close-ups of costume makers, cafeteria workers and a bee keeper intermingled with rehearsals, performances and still shots of hallways and tunnels. The lighting designers talk in a seemingly eternal list of numbers. The administrators discuss promotions and reform with the dancers. Gradually it all begins to make sense, jigsaw puzzle pieces that form one grand picture.
One image I loved were buckets of security cameras at a fund-raising dinner and the mood lighting that played over them. Other images used the mirrors to break up a dancer’s body like a Cubist painting. The contrasts between the images were plentiful, like shots of a meticulous cleaning staff alternating with the moods of Paris itself. One such dance contrast went from a performance of “Medea” to “The Nutcracker,” a scintillating move, much like cleansing the palette.
There are many films about the dance, but I can recall no other that takes on movement qualities the way “La Danse” does. Don’t miss it.