La Danse
Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman followed the Paris Opera Ballet for “La Danse,” which opens Friday at Sundance. ZIPPORAH FILMS

Practice makes perfect — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it makes for compelling viewing.

We see a lot of practice in “La Danse,” a documentary that follows the members of the Paris Opera Ballet as they rehearse for a series of ballets, ranging from a traditional “Nutcracker” to some more avant-garde pieces.

Watching the dancers, some of the best in the world, work on their movements over and over as the choreographers make small tweaks here and there, is intriguing for the first few minutes. You see the components of a piece broken down into a thousand individual parts, as the dancers train and train until all those pieces finally come together into a single, fluid performance.

For the first few minutes. But “La Danse” runs nearly three hours, with no interviews with the performers, no narration, no explanatory captions, no context of any kind. It’s just endless performance footage, indulgently edited together, and it soons proves exhausting. Not “I just danced on the balls of my feet for three hours” exhausting, but exhausting nonetheless.

This is how legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman likes to work, immersing himself in a subject and simply filming and observing, without judgment. In past films, like the famous “Titicut Follies,” which opened the eyes of many Americans to how one prison for the criminally insane operated, Wiseman’s relentless gaze has the effect of finding cracks in the institutions, showing us the dysfunctional cogs in the machine.

“La Danse” offers no such rough spots, and the film lingers on scenes for no obvious reason. The camera observes a couple of interesting conversations, such as when the company is making lavish plans for high-rolling “American friends” to visit, including members of the now-defunct Lehman Brothers. And Wiseman sometimes finds interesting things as he pokes around every nook and cranny of the institution, from the offices to the backstage to the commissary. At the commissary, for example, the cooks serve up healthy, hearty lunches of chicken breasts and couscous. We note that there isn’t a single dancer eating there, just administrative staff, a sly reminder of how the dancers have to constantly obsess about their weight.

In the last third of “La Danse,” the works are performed before an audience, and they’re undeniably beautiful dance pieces. But we’ve seen so much rehearsal footage before that the viewer is a little ground down at this point, a little sick of beautiful motion.

We don’t know who these people are, and we only barely understand what they’ve gone through to make it to the stage, and so their triumphs mean little to us. Great documentaries (of which Wiseman has made many) can be a journey deep into an unfamiliar world. “La Danse” feels more like a guided tour, where we hang outside and peer in.


2 stars

Stars: Marie-Agnes Gillot

Rated: Not rated

How long: 2:47

Opens: Friday

Where: Sundance

For fans of: "The Company," "Titicut Follies," breaking a sweat by watching other people work out