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La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet

Behind the scenes at a top-notch dance academy

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The venerable documentarian Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, High School) takes his cameras inside the equally venerable Paris Opera Ballet. There, without comment, he captures the activities both mundane and extraordinary that comprise this ballet school and performance troupe.

Naturally, we see many dancers -- in rehearsal, and eventually in fully realized performances. And just as a finely executed dance is made up of immeasurable small movements working in harmony, so too is the Opera Ballet. Thus, Wiseman shows us janitors, cafeteria cooks, seamstresses, stagehands and even a beekeeper. We are as privy to the front office, where the ballet's artistic director plots out a three-year schedule, as we are to the water-filled catacombs that run beneath the magnificent old building. (The Opera Ballet is an institution, in all senses of the term.)

In one scene, a tour for major benefactors is discussed. They have given $25,000 -- could they maybe see a piano rehearsal? Ironically, for the much-cheaper price of a movie ticket, viewers will see many piano rehearsals, all shot with extraordinary intimacy. To the untrained eye, these scenes are filled with gorgeous dance, even as choreographers grumble from the sidelines about misplaced arms or movements lacking the correct nuance. (One dancer is counseled to deliver "caresses that could be blows.")

Dance fans should find the two-and-a-half-hour film a rare treat, as the troupe is depicted preparing for several ballets -- some traditional (including the ever-popular Nutcracker), and others more contemporary and avant-garde. But even the casual observer will leave La Danse enlightened about the tremendous marshalling of institutional resources, rigorous physicality and artistic vision that are the unseen steely core of those ethereal bodies we see moving "effortlessly" across the stage. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Feb. 5. Harris

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