“Be sharper. From here, go like this, not like this. Open, and then close. No.”
Choreographer and dancer stop and face one another, their chests rising and falling with their breath. “Second position,” he commands, and she drops into a low squat, toes turned out, arms extended at her sides. “You’re doing this,” he tells her, mimicking her movement, his hips swaying sideways dramatically as he turns. “I’m exaggerating.”
The camera jumps to the roof of a Parisian building, where a beekeeper bends over his hives, wafting smoke to soothe his swarm. Below him, traffic oozes along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Jump again to a dim corridor where fluorescent light casts a greenish pall, then to a series of close-up shots of plates of food, the clatter of cafeteria trays and dining hall chatter echoing somewhere off camera.
This is La Danse, American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s documentary of the Paris Opera Ballet. Released in November, La Danse is Wiseman’s 38th and latest film; an engrossing study of life inside the vast, neo-Baroque Palais Garnier, home to the Paris Opera. This Wednesday, January 20, UCSB Arts & Lectures will screen the film as part of a dance film double feature alongside Strictly Bolshoi, a film by the Balletboyz documenting Christopher Wheeldon’s experience creating a new work for Russia’s luminary Bolshoi Ballet.
Wiseman is known for films that lack narration or interviews, using only raw footage and the manipulation of that material through editing to produce unusually compelling, immediate documentaries. At two-and-a-half hours, La Danse is a thorough examination of the inner workings of a professional dance company. Wiseman opens up the ornate 19th-century building as a chef might flay a fish, exposing its subtle flavors and textures. Much of the material is shot in the studio, where dancers toil under the heat of exacting artistic vision and demanding direction. (“Maybe you could swing your head a bit?” one choreographer suggests. “It makes you feel sick, but it’s beautiful.”) But Wiseman captures the rich variety of a ballet company’s life, from seamstresses at work in the costume shop with pins pinched between thin lips to tense meetings between the dance director and the performers. Of course, there’s also footage from the stage itself.
For dance lovers, it’s a visual feast of exquisite bodies working and reworking technique, and a fantastic peek inside the choreographic process of internationally acclaimed artists, including Sasha Waltz and Angelin Preljocaj. Yet La Danse appeals as a film in its own right, a close and meditative study of its subject that gives even the least informed viewer a tantalizing vision of the life of a dance company, from its most exalted moments to its basest realities.
In contrast, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt’s Strictly Bolshoi is an intensely self-referential, tongue-in-cheek documentary of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s journey to Moscow to create a ballet for the world-renowned Bolshoi. As their collective moniker Balletboyz suggests, U.K.-based Nunn and Trevitt like to mess around, and that they do with this film, taunting their subject, turning the camera on themselves, and even jumping into the action to help the beleaguered Wheeldon create movement when he hits an impasse.
Despite its juvenile tone, Strictly Bolshoi is a fascinating look at the cultural divide between Russian and British artists, and ultimately, a success story. The young, highly acclaimed Wheeldon arrives in Moscow as the first Englishman ever invited to create a new work for the prestigious Bolshoi. He’s confident, it seems, until he finds himself in the studio, face-to-face with dancers who aren’t used to improvising, a diva who throws a tantrum when he isn’t cast in the lead role, and a host of supporting characters clamoring for his attention. As longtime friends of the choreographer, Nunn and Trevitt have intimate access to Wheeldon’s thought processes, anxieties, and dawning realizations. “I’m having a major freak-out day,” he tells the camera at one point, screwing his boyish features into a grimace. Watching him push through real and perceived barriers and forge a new work on a tight deadline is the stuff of true suspense.
As a film, Strictly Bolshoi isn’t the work of art La Danse is, but as the document of an artist’s struggle to communicate a vision across cultural and language barriers, it’s enthralling. It’s also a chance to revel in more luscious dancing, and it’s good for some laugh-out-loud moments — including the Brits wearing fur hats and sliding on the ice on their trip to St. Petersburg. At just longer than an hour, it should be the perfect ending to this evening-length immersion in the dancing life.
UCSB Arts & Lectures screens La Danse at Campbell Hall at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, January 20, followed by Strictly Bolshoi at 9 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.