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22 March 1995 (USA)  »

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Amazing documentary about American Ballet Theatre
7 December 2014 | by (Upstate New York) – See all my reviews

Ballet (1995) was directed by the amazing documentary director Frederick Wiseman. This four-hour film gives us a sense of what it's like to be part of a ballet company and school when the theater is closed and the lights aren't on. (Near the end, we do see some footage of actual performances, but most of the film takes place--literally--behind the scenes

We all know that what ballet dancers do is perform feats for which the human body is not designed. We also know that it's immensely difficult to achieve what we see on stage at a ballet performance. What we don't know is just how hard it is to teach even these immensely talented people how to achieve a great performance.

Wiseman's method is to shoot endless hours of film, and then take bits and pieces of what he has and splice them together. Some scenes last for 15 minutes, but some last for 15 seconds. There's really no plot. We walk with Wiseman into the rehearsal room, or the break room, or the business office, and we watch with him to see what happens next. (What happens next is often very surprising.)

Wiseman is a genius, and, if you watch this long movie, you'll know a lot more about ballet than you probably knew before. What struck me most is that the ballet instructors are not the most verbal of people. They say things like, "Give me a little more shoulder." The dancers never say, "I don't understand what you mean." They nod, and then they give a little more shoulder. They are physically the cream of the cream, but their careers will always depend upon their ability to understand and then perform what is expected of them.

The film has some flaws. For example, there's too much footage at the beach and the Tivoli gardens during the ABT's European tour. And, as I wrote earlier, if you're looking for a ballet performance film, this isn't it. However, if you're interested in ballet, and you're interested in watching a great documentary director's excellent film, Ballet is the right movie for you.

The film will probably work better on a large screen, but we saw it on DVD, so we could watch it over two nights. I'm glad we took the time and made the effort. It's really worthwhile.


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