When classical and contemporary meet, and Paris and Brussels clash: ‘Rain’, the documentary

However magical the world of dance may be, it stays difficult to capture it on film. It was once again what I was thinking while I was watching Rain, a new documentary by Gerard-Jan Claes & Olivia Rochette. The film tries to portray the meeting of two different worlds, as it follows the classically trained dancers of the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris trying to master Rain, one of the emblematic works by Belgian contemporary choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. In for beautiful images and a poetic mood? Then you’ll probably like it. Looking for more? Then you might be disappointed. At least I was.

Sure, both filmmakers didn’t want to dramatize or over-romanticize things. They just wanted to show what was happening in front of their eyes. But let’s face it: every film, even a documentary, needs that little something extra; something that takes you through the film, some sort of thread that holds everything together. For Rain that could have been Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the ever so enigmatic and intriguing choreographer.

But what to do when that central character isn’t present during the better part of the rehearsals? (It was dancer and in 2001 co-creator of RainJakub Truszkowski, assisted by other Rosas-dancers, who led a lot of those sessions.) Then you have to find other tricks, as a filmmaker. So Gerard-Jan Claes and Olivia Rochette agreed with De Keersmaeker that they could use her phone conversations. The short updates she was given of what was happening in those rehearsal studios in that huge Paris opera. Those conversations were used as voice-overs to allow the viewer some insight into what is happening, into what De Keersmaeker is thinking.

Another trick was singling out one of the Parisian dancers, a somewhat angelic, naive and frail looking, young blond girl. And sure, she is a photogenic person, often caught staring dreamily in the distance. But is following her adding anything particular to the film, apart from poetic images and having a recurring motif? Does it shed any light on that difficult process of trying to master that new language?

Rain, filmed in 2011, wants to document the difficulty of bringing two different worlds together: classically trained ballet dancers performing a contemporary choreography. What that means, is quickly told: ballet dancers aren’t used to dancing for such a long stretch of time, they are afraid of hurting themselves by performing those strange moves, and yes, some of them display the prima ballerina behaviour that was to be expected of them.

Both filmmakers opted to not include interviews in their documentary. And they didn’t want to make this an explicative film. Fair enough. But you can’t help it: as you’re watching this, and you’re seeing the almost mathematic grids, you’re craving for more information about the whole process, about this choreography, about what it is that makes it tick; you want a little bit more insight in De Keersmaeker’s ways of thinking.

In my opinion more could have been done to ‘document’ some of this. Sure, they include lots of poetic and beautiful shots, of those rehearsals, of gazes of dancers that tell you that they’re almost ready to give up, of battered feet being taped in, and along the way they also portray that huge opera house, with lots of people and corridors, but nevertheless: I felt something was lacking.

(And then one tiny little detail. At the beginning of the film, De Keersmaeker’s press officer reads a review of Rain to the choreographer over the phone. She listens and her only remark is: ‘It’s a shame it doesn’t say anything about the audience of the Opéra. It should have said something about the audience of the Opéra.’ So apparently that was an issue for De Keersmaeker, something important. And so you wonder as you’re watching Rain: what about the audience of the Opéra? It’s a question that is left unanswered.)

As the end credits were rolling over the screen, after those last shots of that Opéra building by night, one final thought crossed my mind. Everyone who has been lucky enough to catch one of the performance of Rain – by De Keersmaeker’s Rosas or by the Ballet – knows that it is a particularly engulfing piece of work. Strange that only during some very tiny moments this documentary passes on some of that excitement. Or is that just me, and is this another example of that book/movie-adaptation thing… When you’ve read the book, it is impossible for the film to top that experience?

‘Rain’ was produced by Savage Film. More info here.

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