Behind the Dance Behind the Music

2 Oct 2013: La Danse: Le Ballet de L’Opéra de Paris (DVD, 2009, Frederick Wiseman)

Because every now and then it must be nice and simple to stoop to the level of journalistic hackery that finds using obvious puns to headline or conclude entertainment reviews endlessly witty and inventive, I thought that without an obvious opening line pushing its way out of the epistemic birth canal I’d begin this little reaction piece by dreaming into existence a terribly incompetent film director named Freddie Dumbass who would make a film about a famous ballet company in which a single out-of-focus shot is held on the sign outside its main building with muffled sounds of people walking past and occasionally making offhand remarks to each other about the ballet – what they’ve heard about it from other people, whether they’ve ever gone, how “pretentious” it’s all become – but none of which can be heard for more than a half-sentence before the speaker passes out of the microphone’s range. Luckily Wiseman’s no [D]umbass (now one may applaud the critic), but that doesn’t quite make him a [G]enius all the same: we get snatches of fascination, intrigue, insight and even banality, but not a firm grip on any of it, producing a sort of “free”-floating yet forced objectivity that like all such supposedly omniscient perspectives actually blocks out any clear or meaningful viewpoint of it all, or even of any particular aspect of it. We drop in on a meeting about retirement benefits, for instance, which may be changing for the dancers of the ballet based on the state of the economy, but the speaker, obviously a director or superior of sorts, doesn’t know what will happen, and we never find out if he learns, let alone what the consequences would be for the dancers, how current practices differ, or how their retirement age is important, along with what anyone thinks about it either way. The same is true for meetings about proper rewards for wealthy benefactors, depictions of costume creation, and even extended work on the dances themselves, understandably (along with the fuller rehearsals and performances) some of the most engaging sequences in the film. Without context, one obviously cannot appreciate fully what is taking place, but it’s apparent that this is not Wiseman’s goal: instead we are here to partake as aliens, to witness snippets of a system for which occasional synchronicities with our own lives and experiences are incidental to seeing its scope and watching it function. I prefer Wenders’ Pina, which despite a similar simplicity in backgrounding (although direct interviews are employed) focuses on the beauty of the dances rather than skating quickly around the back rooms. This is not just a matter of content, for I’m a sucker for the backroom business of any place as well, but the inherent contradiction of people in those rooms operating in view of the cameras makes for suspect knowledge and limited awareness of their deeper motives and constraints.

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