Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ballet 422

Alternate Title:  Watching the Watchers

One sentence synopsis:    A young ballet dancer at the New York City Ballet is given the opportunity to write, choreograph, and produce a new ballet in two months.

Things Havoc liked:  I do like catching the occasional documentary, even about subjects I care nothing about, and there are few subjects I care less about than ballet, a highly stylized art form whose artificiality has never appealed to me. Oh I have nothing against ballet, certainly, and I know plenty of people who speak highly of this or that troupe, show, or dancer. One thing I do know about ballet however is how exacting it is, how terribly hard everyone works, how cutthroat the competition is for every position at every level. I know this, of course, because I have seen movies such as Black Swan, and movies would never lie to me. And so it was that I decided to go see a documentary about this full contact sport and see what the process for making these things actually is.

Ballet 422 is about a young man named Justin Peck, one of the "choral" ballet dancers (the lowest rung on the totem pole) at the New York City Ballet company. Thanks to an in-house choreographer's course and a promotion put on by the company, Peck was given a chance to write and direct (to use the movie parlance) a new ballet, the four hundred and twenty second in the history of the company. The documentary is simply a record of the process of him doing so, working with the dancers, the costumers, the lighting technicians, the conductor and orchestra, all of the myriad people who must come together in order to produce any kind of live performance such as this. All of this seems like a huge opportunity for a fairly low-ranking member of the ballet's cast to be given, and I must assume that this is some sort of particular distinction that Mr. Peck was singled out for.

Things Havoc disliked:  Why must I assume this? Well there's a couple of reasons, but mostly it's because this documentary doesn't tell you anything at all about anything.

Ballet 422 is the least informative documentary in the history of documentaries, and if that's not literally true then I really don't want to know what ranks above it. It has nothing to say, not in any sense of the word, about Ballet, about the process of making it, about Justin Peck or his creative process, about anything whatsoever. It is a complete waste of time in the form of a 75 minute hole in your life. Not content with providing no narration to their supposed documentary, the filmmakers for Ballet 422 have decided in addition that there should be no interviews, no subtitles, no actual discussion with the subjects of their story, just silent observation, as the ballet dancers and crew go about the business of creating the ballet. You might think that even with all that, it would still manage to be an interesting viewpoint into a hidden world, but so averse are these filmmakers to elementary film-making conceits, to informing their audience at all, that we literally are given long stretches of the camera watching a person who is in turn watching a dancer offscreen perform a routine we do not know anything about. We literally stare into the eyes of someone watching something else for minutes at a time, and are somehow expected to derive meaning and importance from the subject thereby. This approach is so tremendously wrongheaded that it is almost farcical, a pastiche of overly-important arthouse-style "undocumentaries" that are fashionable among the stupid crowd.

Oh there's stuff in this film, certainly, dancers and costumers and musicians and the rest of it, but while we do see them rehearse, or plan, or block, or inscribe notes onto arcane pads and computers, we have no conception of what they are actually talking about. At best we're given a chance to see Peck himself critiquing the way one of the premier dancers performs, or having a conversation with the conductor of the orchestra as to whether he's allowed to address them before the premiere (the departments seem pretty protective of their turf in this company, though I suppose that's no surprise), but devoid of context or, all we're watching is what amounts to a home movie for insiders from the ballet company, a series of vignettes meant to stimulate people's memories of the process of putting the ballet together, not substitute for them for us uninitiated plebeians. We get no sense of the artistic intention behind this ballet, no idea why Peck wants things to be one way and not another, nor of what options he has thought of and discarded. The movie doesn't even manage to generate a sense of pressure or tension as he goes about trying to pull this ballet off. Isn't two months a bit short for creating a full on ballet? I have no idea, as the film treats the whole affair as a workaday event. As a result of all this, I left the theater without even any idea as to what the ballet is supposed to be about, what it was based on, or even what its title was. And as to the various people I saw over the course of the film, let's just say that I didn't realize that Peck was himself married to one of the lead ballerinas (something that drastically alters the dynamic going on here) until I happened upon the IMDB page for the film and noticed the names matched.

Final thoughts:   Ballet 422 is one of the worst documentaries I've ever seen, a film that fails not on an artistic level, but on the deeper, mechanistic level of actually getting across the subject matter to the audience. I can only assume this was intentional, as the film is so systematically devoid of contextual information that I can't envision this happening by accident. Someone decided, for whatever reason, to tell the audience nothing whatsoever, confident either in the thought that merely peering behind the curtain would be enough for us, or perhaps trying to make some artistic point about audiences being spoon-fed information. Either way, the result was a totally pointless exercise, a documentary that documents nothing but context-free footage of people doing things that we don't understand, for purposes we don't know, in the service of a vision we don't see, from a choreographer we never get to meet.

Hell, you want to know what kind of documentary this is? The poster for the film shows the main character on stage, staring off at the interior of the richly-furnished theater, no doubt dreaming of the world premiere he is about to stage before everyone at the New York City Ballet.

The theater he's "staring" at? It's the 180-year old Mikhailevsky Theater for Dance and Performing Arts. In St. Petersburg.  A place referenced by name, location, or even inference exactly zero times in the entire film.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Next Time:  Johnny Five alive?  And kicking ass?

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