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La Danse: An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

Filmmaker, Ballet Fan (and not necessarily in that order)

Michael W. Phelan

December 8, 2009

The director of some thirty-nine documentary films, ranging in subjects from warfare to welfare, Frederick Wiseman is widely acknowledged to be the world's foremost documentary filmmaker. The list of awards for his films reads like a monument to the arts. Wiseman explores the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day lives within institutions that most of us may take for granted, but find fascinating in the complexity and detail that he reveals.

In 1995 Wiseman turned his camera on his lifelong interest in ballet, documenting the American Ballet Theater in the film Ballet. This year, he has returned to ballet with La Danse, a look at the Paris Opera Ballet that examines the wider world of the dancers, dance leaders, and business people who carry on the traditions of that venerable institution. Frederick Wiseman

BayDance.com: What did you hope to do with Paris Opera Ballet in La Danse that you didn't do with ABT in your documentary Ballet?

Frederick Wiseman: The style of the two companies is different, the administration is different, Paris is different from New York. The Paris Opera Ballet has a 300 year tradition. It is state subsidized, unlike the ABT at the time I was doing the movie when they were in financial difficulty and weren't sure how many dancers they could hire for the next season. ABT dancers come from all over the world. Most of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers come from the ballet school attached to the Opera. I think ABT has its own school now, but they didn't then. At the Paris Opera Ballet the tradition is passed on from one generation to another, because many former star dancers become teachers at the Ballet school or they become ballet masters, for example. In many of the sequences of the film Lawrence Hilaire is the ballet master who for twenty-five years was one of the star dancers of the company. Before that he'd been to the Ballet school. So he was taught by the great dancers of the previous generation. He was a great dancer of his generation, and now he is teaching the new dancers. All that is very different from the ABT. Plus, Paris Opera is in Paris and I like to be in Paris.

BD: I understand you are a lifelong fan of ballet. Was there some particular experience that sparked your interest in ballet?

FW: I think when I was in law school, actually, I used to slip away to New York to go to the ballet, in the fifties, and ever since then I go to the ballet a lot. And I lived in Paris for a couple of years in the late fifties. Starting in the year 2000 I've lived in Paris for half, three-quarters of a year, and I've done several projects there, and I went to the ballet a lot. And I just thought it would be the right time to do another ballet movie. The real reason is that I like ballet and I thought it would be fun to do another movie.

BD: As a ballet fan, you have an affinity for and appreciation of this subject that you didn't have in some of your other films, such as Maneuver.

FW: Ha! Ha! Ha! What makes you think I'm not a fan of war? Ha! Ha! I guess that's true to some extent. I had the misfortune of going to high school (BD: referring to his documentary High School), but I mean that's basically true.

BD: Did you try to approach La Danse with the objectivity of a documentarian or as a fan trying to share his appreciation of the art?

FW: I don't think any of my films, certainly mine, and I can't imagine how anybody's film, can be objective. The word I substitute for "objective" is "fair", in the sense that I hope the final film is a fair report on the experience I had with the Paris Opera Ballet, being there for twelve weeks and working on the editing, but objective, certainly not. I don't know how me or anyone else could be objective in a documentary film because everything is rooted in choice: camera angle, duration of sequence, order of sequences, transitions, themes. Objectivity is not an issue. If you shot with 360 cameras with 360 angles for 360 days, it wouldn't be objective.

Scene from La DanseBD: In a way then, from your point of view, making a documentary is like choreography, isn't it?

FW: Yeah, it's like novel writing, which is like choreography, in the sense that I have no idea... I mean it's like it and it isn't like it, because a choreographer will come into rehearsal with an idea of what he wants. I start a film with the idea that I'll probably be able to accumulate enough material, in the course of eight to twelve weeks shooting, to make a film. But, I have no idea what the scenes or the structure are going to be. I don't know what I'm going to find except, in the case of dancing, where there will be rehearsals, and administrative meetings, and performances. But, that's abstract. What's specific, I have no idea in advance. Once the film is shot, that's where the analogy to choreography, or novel writing, or play writing, I think, is appropriate. Even though, in the case of a documentary movie, or my documentary movies, it occurs afterwards rather than before. Choreographers come into a rehearsal period with at least an idea of what they want, and often much more than that. It's like novel writing in the sense that my imagination is limited, my imagination plays against the rushes and is limited only by the choices that I can imagine about how to organize and select the rushes (BD: unedited footage shot during the making of a movie). A novelist's imagination is limited only by what they can dream up. In La Danse I had 120 hours of rushes. That represents a wide choice of possibilities. And out of the 120 hours of rushes I have to find a film. And I get involved in the same issues that a writer gets involved in, and to some extent a choreographer, at a different stage of the process because I get involved in issues of scenes and point of view, and structure and pauses, and characterization, abstractions, and passage of time. Every form deals with the same general issues, but their expression is different, whether it be a ballet, or a novel, or a poem.

BD: Do you think that there are also artistic similarities between your documentaries and ballet, in that there is no explanatory narration and the viewer is left to interpret the unstated and maybe ambiguous?

FW: Yeah! Sure! Because I don't like to read a novel or a poem where... I don't like didacticism. When I read a novel, I don't like the novelist to tell me on the first page what the novel is going to be about. It's up to me to figure out what the novelist is trying to do. When I read an Allison Monroe short story, I have to work to find out what she's writing about, what the themes are, what she's left in the story and what she's left out of the story, and what the relationship of the people is, based on the evidence she gives me. When I make one of these movies, whether La Danse or any other movie, I don't directly state my point of view or the themes. I think it's all there. But, it's up to the viewer to figure it out and interpret the implications of what it is they're seeing and hearing.

BD: If you could choreograph ballet, is there a choreographer you would you like to emulate?

FW: Ha, ha, ha. I have choreographers that I like a lot. I like Balanchine, I like MatsEk, Jiri Kylian, among contemporary choreographers.

BD: What ballets do you enjoy seeing again and again?

FW: I always enjoy seeing Balanchine. In terms of modern choreographers, I like those three choreographers in particular. I also like when some of the great dance companies do the great classical ballets. I saw Swan Lake at the Paris Opera Ballet a few years ago. It's an old chestnut, but it was beautifully done. There's also a Nureyev version of La Bayadere. I like both the modern and classical ballets. I like the ballet Janus that's in La Danse. I don't have a preference for modern versus classical. It's the old cliché, "I know what I like."

BD: In a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose, you said you'd like to work for a ballet company, even as a secretary or something.

FW: Ha! I'd forgotten I said that. I've said the same thing about the Paris Opera Ballet, about applying for a job there. Because it's so beautiful. And often the rehearsals are just as good as the performances, and sometimes better. Everything is variable in the sense that it's ephemeral. When it works, it's lovely. And then it's gone. It's not like film, which may last 100 years. Each performance of a ballet is somewhat different, and when it works, it's actually exquisite. A couple of months ago I saw a classical version of Giselle at the Paris Opera Ballet two nights in a row, and the second act was one of the most beautiful moments I've ever seen.

BD: Why should everyone drop what they're doing and run out and see La Danse?

FW: Ha, ha! I think it's beautiful. But I'm prejudiced. I hope it gives people a good idea of what's involved and in both performing and running a major ballet company and what ballet is like. And I also hope it deals with some of the abstractions that are present in dance.

La Danse is being shown at the following Bay Area theaters:

December 4th - 10th

  • Balboa Theater, 3630 Balboa Street at 38th Avenue in San Francisco
  • Rialto Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Rd in Santa Rosa
  • Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael

December 11th - 17th

  • Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College at Ashby, Berkeley
  • Camera 3, 201 S 2nd St, San Jose



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Background photo © 1999 Michael W. Phelan

Michael W. Phelan, michael@baydance.com