Back Talk: Frederick Wiseman

Back Talk: Frederick Wiseman

A conversation with the director of La Danse about the discipline of ballet–and documentary filmmaking.


Since the late 1960s, Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries about social institutions like mental hospitals, high schools, theater companies and state legislatures. His newest documentary–the thirty-sixth of his career–is La Danse, a profile of the Paris Opera Ballet. At 79 years old, Wiseman has no plans to retire. His next project is about a boxing gym. –Christine Smallwood

The camera in La Danse often lingers on the architecture of the Palais Garnier, where the company rehearses and performs.

I love the building. It’s a nineteenth-century building. There are those beautiful small, round rooms under the cupolas where the dancers often rehearse. Even though much of what it does is modern ballet, I wanted to place the company in the context of its tradition, and one way to do that was to show the beauty of the building, and the mysterious aspects of it.

Some of the hallways are very anonymous-looking.

There was no activity in the hallways. The dancers show up and they leave. That is, they work. They show up for class at 10 or 11 in the morning. Some of them may have a quick lunch in the cafeteria, and then they rehearse all afternoon. Those performing at night stop rehearsing at 4:30; those not performing at night can rehearse until 7:30, and then they leave. There wasn’t much chitchat.

You didn’t shoot the audience.

Well, it’s dark, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the audience. The only time you see the audience is walking up the steps. As far as I was concerned, that had no place in the film. It would have been an anonymous shot of a large mass of people who you knew were there anyway. The dancers don’t mingle with the public. They don’t mix and greet, or whatever it’s called.

Your films reveal the routines and rhythms of the subject under consideration. Can you talk about what place surprise has in those routines?

The whole thing is based on surprise–surprise to me. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s the Las Vegas aspect of this kind of filmmaking. And that’s a great part of the fun. When I go to rehearsal I know it’s going to be a rehearsal, but I don’t know what the ballet masters are going to say, I don’t know what the choreographers are going to say, I don’t know what the response of the dancers is going to be, I don’t know if it’s going to be a beautiful rehearsal or if they’re going to make a lot of mistakes. You have to be alert.

Some of the teachers’ comments are harsh.

They’re tough, but they’re not cruel. It’s a very precise form. The ballet masters are all former star dancers; they’ve been formed by the same tradition that the younger dancers have been exposed to: almost everybody has gone to the ballet school in Nanterre, which is run by the company, although a few come from other schools. The ballet masters are passing on to a new generation the tradition which they have learned from the ballet school, which they have perfected as dancers. You know, they’re strict. But dance is a discipline, and it has analogies to other forms of education that require adherence to rules. The training begins very young: they start at about 8.

I went to the ballet school in Nanterre one day to shoot a sequence I didn’t use in the film. As I was walking the corridors between the auditoriums, every time I passed a student, the boys would tip their forelocks and the girls would curtsy. I thought it was both funny and quaint, but it was part of the discipline. It’s related to army training, to forms of classical education. And it’s a meritocracy. There’s no bullshit. Either you got it or you don’t got it. And if you don’t got it, sorry. If it’s not working, too bad. At a very young age the dancers, or the aspiring dancers, learn the discipline. And they expect not to be treated cruelly, because I don’t think ballet masters or choreographers get away with that; they expect to be told precisely what to do. It’s their job to do it, and it’s the ballet masters’ job to tell them what to do. At the same time, for the more experienced dancers, the ballet masters are always open to suggestion, as are the choreographers.

I had no idea that a beekeeper worked on the roof of the ballet.

He’s a retired stagehand or technician, I’ve forgotten which, and he was interested in bees. He had noticed there were bees on the roof, so he set up an apiary. The honey is sold in the boutique of the opera. It’s called Le Miel de l’Opéra de Paris. It’s very expensive–15 euros for a small bottle–and it’s very good. I tasted it right off the comb; the apiarist took a big dollop with his finger and gave it to me.

You’re a well-known independent filmmaker. How much time do you have to spend raising money for projects?

I don’t spend a lot of time raising money, because you know pretty quickly whether you’re going to get it or not. For a documentary filmmaker in America, you can go to PBS, NEA, NEH, the Ford Foundation, in the past the MacArthur–the MacArthur is in transition; I don’t know how much more they’re going to do on documentary–and maybe a couple of other foundations. Occasionally I’ve been able to get money from the BBC and from ARTE France, and that’s it.

Is documentary film a healthy art form?

I don’t see many films. I’m busy working. I work a lot. And when I’m in the middle of editing I work seven days a week. I like to ski. I read a lot. Now I am reading José Saramago, I’m reading Tristram Shandy. I’m appreciating it much more than I did when I read it in college. Back then I didn’t realize how funny it was.

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