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Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Days and nights at the Opera

Tout près des étoiles

Rating: * * * *
Director: Nils Tavernier
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: French
Now showing

Just as a swan's elegant glide over the water is the result of furious paddling underneath, a ballet dancer must endure rigorous and endless training before defying gravity on stage. For what is ballet if not a demonstration of the liberation from the forces of gravity? The rest of us, anchored solidly to the earth with our weighty clumsiness, can only sigh. And you'll probably hear a whole lot of sighing as the world of "Tout pres des etoiles" (released in Japan as "Etoiles") unfolds before your eyes. Directed by Nils Tavernier (son of Bertrand), "Etoiles" marks the first time a documentary film crew has penetrated behind the scenes of the Opera National de Paris.

News photo
The dancers of the National Opera de Paris as seen in "Tout près des étoiles"

Established in 1672 and officially recognized by Louis XIV in 1713, L'Opera combines grand tradition with the world's finest dancers and can best be described as the institutionalized quest for beautiful movement. And as Tavernier's lens will attest, it's also a strictly hierarchical society whose 154 members are divided into five classes, from quadrille to etoile, the highest position a dancer can hope to attain.

It's clear Tavernier is just as enthralled with this world as any ballet fan. The camera slithers in and out of classrooms, to costume closets and to the stage productions, as if trying to mimic the incredible gracefulness of the dancers, whose mere stroll across the floor is a work of art. For inside the confines of L'Opera, all forms of awkwardness are abhorred and exterminated. The youngest students of 8 and 9 curtsy to their teachers so prettily they resemble rosebuds bobbing in the breeze.

Dancers are forever flexing leg muscles at the barre, and often their warm-ups are more visually striking than actual productions on stage. When they apply makeup, their fingers seem to follow a divine music, audible only to them. And let it be noted that not one of these people are ever seen near a laptop, coffee or . . . food. Such things are obviously for the gravity-encumbered.

Indeed, interview after interview records dancers voicing their intense passion for their art, the oneness they achieve with the orchestra, the narcotic-like seduction of the stage that surpasses everything else. Former etoiles, now turned instructors or administrators at L'Opera, all say that from their earliest years at the barre, they had willingly made every sacrifice, and all the tribulations endured were worth it for those few perfect minutes in "Swan Lake." Miteki Kudoh, daughter of a former etoile and herself a suget (two ranks down), says quietly: "Ballet is on my mind 24 hours a day. I imagine it's the same with almost everyone else here."

There is no real story to "Etoiles." Tavernier's style is a collage of frames and footage; like Degas, he seems content simply to paint the picture of dancers and their world, inviting us to share in his reverence. Accordingly, the film is interspersed with gorgeous black-and-white stills by Vincent Tessier, mindful of Degas' charcoal dessins. This is far from an in-depth documentary, but it's clear Tavernier has ventured onto a small and secretive planet, and if it wasn't for his tenaciousness (he waited over two years before L'Opera granted permission), details about this planet would still be undisclosed.

What a strange, cruel and amazing place this is. A girl who enters the school as a child will spend the next three decades in the same, unchanging circle of elite ballet classmates, investing all their passion into their art (and only 12 out of more than 150 are chosen as etoiles) until retirement comes around at 40 (for men, it's 45). And then what? The options are pretty much limited to teaching, and it's shocking to contrast the physiques of former etoiles with current ones: Once a dancer steps off the stage, gravity reclaims the body.

Knowing all this, the dancers never stop dancing, waging war against themselves and nature, propelled by the quest for the perfect movement. As etoile Aurelie Dupont puts it: "A dancer is never satisfied with their body and how they move. The mirror confronts and scolds us. We search for what is wrong, then get to work repairing it. Over and over again."

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