We have to follow a certain logic.
“You have to go on working,” instructs Brigitte Lefèvre. “Not for the sake of working. You have to turn everything to your advantage. You can learn a lot by observing others.” She’s speaking with a lovely, slightly flustered-seeming member of the corps de ballet at the Paris Opera Ballet, where Lefèvre has been artistic director since 1995. The girl smiles and nods, grateful and reverent. She agrees: she must work harder.
This interview with the young dancer comes near the end of La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (La danse: Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris), screening 4 November at New York’s Film Forum. And work is at the documentary’s center—the work of dancers, directors and instructors, certainly, viewed during rehearsals in the studio and on stage, perfecting their performances. Frederick Wiseman’s absorbing film shows other work as well, close-ups of costume designers bent over tutus and masks, janitors mopping floors, cafeteria servers spooning rice onto plates. The Paris Opera Ballet, so famous for its elegance and longevity, is sustained by laborers, each and every day.
Repeatedly and carefully, documentary observes their work, bodies exerted and in motion—stepping, jumping, lifting, twisting, sweating, and breathing, hard. The film opens on an early morning, the gray streets of Paris pulsing with traffic, the roar of a motorbike providing a transition to the Palais Garnier’s interior, its long history indicated in a series of stationary shots: cool stone basement walls, ropes and pulleys, curtains and chairs. A young woman hurries down a stairway, and inside a classroom, a teacher speaks over a steady thump-thumping, weight on wooden floors: “Back behind the leg, good, good. And very soft legs. Soft feet.” A group of women bend over their long legs, some 30 sets of hands fluttering at once. As they rise and fall and migrate together, their teacher watches, her gaze intent, her arms in motion. As the bodies pause, she nods: “Not bad for a first try.”
And they go back to work. Repetition and dedication: such abstract notions, ideals in their way, are here made concrete. Muscular legs and stunningly defined backs, necks turned gracefully and arms stretched over heads. New principal dancer Laetitia Pujol practices an arabesque, again and again. Her teacher wonders, “Why do you stop on the floor?”
The work of the 2008 season, developing here, includes Wayne McGregor’s modernist ballet “Genus,” inspired by On the Origin of Species, with Marie-Agnès Gillot, and Angelin Preljocaj’s “Médée,” featuring young étoile Emilie Cosette as the murderous mother. Preljocai suggests that she let go of some things. “Cocteau had a sentence, not so nice to the artists,” he half-smiles, ““It’s up to the public to figure it out.’ Sometimes it’s unexplainable, it’s a state you can’t define, but once you’re on stage with blood all over a devastated face, you’ll see.” When, much later, the film shows a portion of this performance, Medea’s dead children arranged with buckets on their heads, and her own body splattered with red as she crawls across the stage, his suggestion is suddenly painfully potent. However unexplainable, the image is dreadful and disturbing. “The character is layered from the beginning,” Preljocai says.
The complex process of this performance is connected to the ongoing process of the company. And like Wiseman’s other films, this one avoids overt comment on its subjects, but instead puts together scenes—arduous rehearsals, urban exteriors, and earnest conversations—that leave little doubt as to the documentary’s interest. Early on, Lefèvre asserts her investment in the “team.” She insists, “This task must bring people together. Everyone must unite around the work. To me, the final result must be a gift to the public that they can feel without any explanation.”
Despite and because of the ineffable art, the film never loses sight of what’s concrete—the bodies and hours and places where this magic is made. Even as the Paris Opera Ballet creates art, it also employs workers and depends on patrons. During a meeting with her administrative staff, Lefèvre seeks ways to satisfy the “Big Benefactors,” special tours of the Palais or exclusive access to rehearsals, a “grandiose reception” to help them feel rewarded. She encourages programmers to maintain a mix of new work and classics, and meets with dancers, individually (soothing one ballerina who worries, “I’m not 25 anymore,” and so unable to execute an endless number of pointes and jumps) and en masse.
When a labor representative encourages an assembly of dancers to plan for their futures (the Ballet expects them to retire at 40), Lefèvre interrupts to remind them of the value of their work here, in this particular company. “Dancers should become more aware of their individual situation,” she soothes, “But also, what it means to belong to the Paris Opera Ballet… Repeat it loud and clear, because it’s your strength.” Work is belonging. And belonging is work.