“Ballet,” the 27th documentary by Frederick Wiseman, provides a detailed behind-the-scenes look at 1992 rehearsals and parts of a European tour by American Ballet Theater. While sharply observed and intrinsically fascinating to dance fans, pic’s cumbersome length and lack of explanatory guidance for the uninitiated make it far more suitable to PBS, where it will air June 26, than to theatrical sites.
As in his previous docus, Wiseman eschews commentary and interviews in fashioning an intimate institutional portrait that emphasizes group interaction over individual personality, and facts over interpretation. For the first 100 minutes, his camera stands back and watches the daily routine at the company’s Lower Manhattan headquarters.
Episodes in the loft studios convey the rigorous interplay between the dancers’ youthful physicality and the thoughtful, demanding acuity of their older instructors. In one passage, wheelchair-bound choreographer Agnes de Mille searches for words to describe the action she wants from a young female dancer, finally coming up with “a visible scream.” The phrase feels just right, and in capturing the moment of its formulation, Wiseman conveys the spark of creativity with similar eloquence.
The downside is that viewers not already versed in this world will be unable to identify de Mille, the other choreographers depicted, the leading dancers or the works being rehearsed and performed. Lack of such basic information may suit most Wiseman projects, where the subjects are unknown and their actions easily understood in context, but in “Ballet,” where much depends on the personal and aesthetic histories of the protagonists, the filmmaker’s usual method leaves a galaxy of questions unanswered.
Result makes it seem that the veteran documentarian places greater value on maintaining his trademark style than on revealing his subject. Coming at a time when the funding for such companies is under attack, Wiseman’s opaque approach does little to help dispel their “elitist” image.
Pic’s later sections prove more accessible in concentrating on perfs in the scenic Roman-era theater on the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens and in Copenhagen. These visceral episodes need no explanation.