Etoiles: Dancers Of The Paris Opera Ballet

2001, Movie, NR, 100 mins


Skeptics dismiss the all-or-nothing histrionics of classic ballet melodrama THE RED SHOES (1948) as overwrought and unrealistic, but Nils Tavernier's sober, perceptive documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet proves beyond a doubt that the stakes are every bit as high in the real world of 21st-century dancers' lives. "The system is a machine that crushes the weak," says former ballerina Ghislaine Thesmar of the rigorous process by which adorable youngsters are molded into world-class dancers, and dancers developed into etoiles — stars. Though a relative newcomer to the world of classical dance, Tavernier's grandparents lived on the Avenue de l'Opera, near the 19th-century Palais Garnier where the company performs, and he became fascinated by the graceful, slightly otherworldly dancers he saw walking down the street. Shot in 1999, Tavernier's film intersperses footage of dancers rehearsing, taking class and performing with interviews with choreographers (including a reluctant Maurice Bejart and a more forthcoming Jiri Kylian), company directors, students and dancers, from the lowest-ranked hopefuls in the corps to the most senior members of the troupe. Unlike most American companies, the Paris Opera Ballet is insured a steady stream of dancers trained in its specific style from its own, nearly 400-year-old school, and advancement through the company ranks proceeds according to a rigid schedule. Of the hundreds of aspiring dancers who apply to the school annually, 30 are accepted, a third make it through the first year and a handful graduate to dance with the company. Without slipping into point/counterpoint clichés, Tavernier elicits starkly contrasting accounts of life in the school and the company; whether because he's a particularly skilled interviewer or French dancers are especially articulate, his subjects' responses are both candid and considered. Etoile ClaireMarie Osta, who channeled her teenage desire to be a nun into dancing, wasn't phased by the harsh mental and physical demands of the Paris Opera Ballet school, while fellow etoile Marie-Agnes Gillot concedes that she would have welcomed a little more emotional support. Other dancers speak perceptively about balancing their careers and their personal lives, the ironic and frustrating way that artistic maturity coincides with loss of physical ability, the complicated mix of comraderie and competiton that defines their relationships with other dancers, and what they get in return for all they've given up. Overall the film is a fascinating glimpse into an insular world that gives the lie to many clichés and showcases a group of dedicated artists. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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Etoiles: Dancers Of The Paris Opera Ballet
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