What a thrilling week for dance onscreen. Yes, the Michael Jackson concert-rehearsal documentary, This Is It, features a moonwalking skeleton, but he’s a skeleton moonwalking well—which is oddly inspiring. (For my review, go here, where there’s also an assessment of the lumbering satire The Men Who Stare at Goats.) Film Forum revives the glorious backstage ballet classic The Red Shoes for two weeks, and if you haven’t seen it in a theater, jeté don’t walk. Even better news is that Film Forum will also premiere Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, a portrait of one of the world’s great companies by one of the world’s great vérité documentarians.
Wiseman is in Paris to film the human body at its highest level of expression. His camera studies superhumanly sculpted bodies being studied by superhumanly focused choreographers, who have X-ray knowledge of their dancers’ musculature. (“Your legs are really alive. You must stretch really well to get a better pirouette—resist, don’t land too early …”) Wiseman’s gaze is even, unhurried, contemplative; when the camera wanders, it’s to take the measure of the space, locate us in the ornate theater in the labyrinthine building in the sprawling city, to give us a chance to breathe between the taut rehearsals and performances. A manager tells a guest choreographer that the company is hierarchical, but Wiseman isn’t. La Danse captures a living ecosystem. I’d say he absorbed Robert Altman’s The Company but I suspect it was Altman who took a Wiseman-like approach.
Beyond offering the privilege of watching gorgeously photographed scenes from seven ballets—classically smooth and atonally jarring—by choreographers like Wayne McGregor, Angelin Preljocaj, and Mats Ek, La Danse is an anatomy lesson. When a work of art is “transcendent,” it allows us to see beyond the material world. La Danse is not transcendent. It’s about flesh and bone and sinew, about sublimity on Earth.