To me one of the greatest challenges of shooting a documentary on ballet is how to portray the dancing. It’s clear that one cannot make a piece about ballerinas without showing them dance. The problem, I have found, is that recording a performance is not interesting. Ballet is meant to be seen live, sitting in the audience. I watched every dance film I could get my hands on to decide what works and what does not work. My favorite documentaries are the two Frederick Wiseman films, Ballet (1995) and La Danse (2009). Most of the others (I won’t name names) I felt were not that well crafted, though essentially they had the same problems as the films that inspired me. I also adore (though apparently I am one of the few, even among Altman fans) Robert Altman’s The Company (2003) and even though it is fiction his goal was to give the illusion of a documentary.
Though these three films are superior to most films on ballet; they are still flawed. To me the problems lie in interweaving the performances with the story. The more I watched these films the more I found myself forwarding through the performances. I would love to watch these performances in person, of course, but on film they seemed ho-hum. The moments I could watch again and again were the rehearsals were you could actually see the dancers working. How they fixed mistakes and focused on the smallest of steps. The little moments that perplexed them and most importantly how everyone worked together and relied on one another. Still, I felt I needed to give the feel of a complete performance, thus my use of the Super 8 film.
There are some exceptions to this flawed performance theory of mine: Center Stage (Hytner 2000) and Dancers (Ross 1987). While the story and acting leave much to be desired; the performances in both of these films are exceptional. The best part, hands down, of Center Stage is the dance at the end. The rest is sort of clichéd and teenage-y. Why are these performances so much better than the others? Because the camera does not stay in the audience, but instead becomes part of the action (for instance at the end of Center Stage when Jodi suddenly has on red shoes). You can do this in a fiction film, but during a live performance the audience would probably not appreciate it if I jumped up on stage to get close-ups and various angles on the action. Therefore, documentaries don’t really have a choice, but to shoot from the audience (or the wings).