Dansomanie : entretiens : Dominique Delouche
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Dominique Delouche, cinéaste de la danse


Pour Dansomanie, Dominique Delouche raconte comment il a "filme la danse" 



Dominique Delouche, a filmmaker known to every balletomane, has kindly agreed to speak to Dansomanie of his career, of his conversations with great artists of the ballet, and of how one films the art form.  Although M. Delouche does indeed refer to the past, our conversation is amongst "current events" nonetheless, since he is one of the few who has celebrated Serge Lifar's centenary.M. Delouche's latest film, Serge Lifar Musagète will be released on November 30th 2005 (première at the Elysée Lincoln Cinema, Paris), and the latest two documentaries in the series Une étoile pour l'exemple are about to be appear as DVDs.


Dominique Delouche, Dance film maker



Dominique Delouche, why have you specialised in the dance?

Through dance, I discovered the theatre - a revelation, an art form that was not only mysterious, something from the spirit world, but as it were, divine.  I must have been twelve or thirteen, the War was on, and suddenly I stumbled into a space where men and women defied the law of gravity.  They were the angels of which our catechism teacher spoke.  Until that day, I had found it hard to believe that angels might exist, and then I saw the Opera and knew they did, and their name was Lifar, Darsonval, Peretti, Lorcia. From that moment on, the dance never left me, and when I turned to other art forms - - first and foremost, the cinema - the dance caught up with me.

My first film was entitled Le Spectre de la danse.  I was twenty-five, and by a stroke of luck, Serge Lifar agreed to work with me.  The film was fairly successful here and abroad, and my career took off.  At the time, I couldn't have foreseen that the film would be so long-lived.  Now, in the year 2005, Lifar's centenary, I've taken images from that short film, where the Master himself appears, and used them in Serge Lifar Musagète.

Although some claim Lifar was terribly vain, it so happens that he was most reluctant to appear on film, just as he was reluctant to have his choreography filmed, unlike Massine, for whom we have many such documents.

After Le Spectre de la danse and l'Adage, I stopped making dance films, to focus on other subjects, although some critics did suggest that my films were always « choreographic » in tone.  It seems that I lent the camera, with its complex graphism, a dynamic that recalled the ballet.  My point of reference was Max Ophüls' work, that to my mind is indeed « choreographed ».  In this respect, Ophüls was my master, a further link between us being Danièle Darrieux, his Muse, and whom I directed in two films, Vingt quatre heures de la vie d'une femme and Divine, a musical comedy.

I was introduced to Ophüls two years before his death, and I was to be his assistant on his last film on Modigliani, Les Montparnots.  In the end, it was Jacques Becker who made the film, under the title Montparnasse 19, as Ophüls had unfortunately died in the interval.

Divine was an outright disaster, to a degree that I stopped making fiction films for years thereafter.  In fact, I even stopped making feature films, and turned my hand to directing opera, thanks to Gabriel Dussurget, who hired me for the Aix en Provence Festival.  I also worked at the Paris Opera with Rolf Liebermann, notably for Werther (Massenet), and in Germany.  I directed the opera, and also designed the scenery and costumes.

I got back into the Flicks by the servant's entrance, as it were, by making short films on the dance.  I somehow realised that amongst the short films I'd made early on, only those on dance were still "alive", and had even "ripened" with age, through their value as witness to the past.  Years later, the Spectre de la danse and l'Adage were still in demand everywhere.

Whereupon, I decided to make a monograph on Rosella Hightower called Aurore, with Elisabeth Platel, then at the start of her career, followed by a monograph on Yvette Chauviré (Le Cygne), where she was to teach Dominique Khalfouni.

I owe a great deal to Yvette Chauviré : once we'd finished Le Cygne, she asked me to make a longer documentary, including five or six sequences where she would pass on major roles to young dancers of her choice.

Originally intended for the archives, we decided, at the end of the day, to release the film under the title Une étoile pour l'exemple, and it enjoyed quite unexpected acclaim. Yvette Chauviré had put me back in the saddle as a feature-film maker!  This in turn enabled me to make roughly ten further films, one every two to three years.  Which is how I came to make Maïa, Katia et Volodia, Comme les oiseaux, Les Cahiers retrouvés de Nina Vyroubova, Serge Peretti, le dernier Italien...

I'd intended to make my very last films in the year 2001, namely Violette et Mr. B., and Markova la légende.  I felt that I had put together the puzzle, with the pieces of the classical dance world of the last thirty years.  But as Lifar's centenary approached, it dawned on me that nothing, perhaps, would be done to honour a man who was a genius, not even at the Paris Opera that owes him, perhaps not everything, but so much.


Now, why did I never film entire works, and why did I only direct lyric opera, in the theatre?

My theme has ever been the handing-down of tradition, the memory of the dance, from one generation to the next.  One could describe it as «getting a hold» on otherwise-fragile recollections.  I call it anamnesis, i.e. the opposite to amnesia. Anamnesis is the instant in the Mass where one recalls the first Eucharist.  The Church may have stashed its angels away in a cupboard, but what remains, are the dancers.


Would you say that the dance is a religion to you?

The shock I received at age thirteen, when I saw the Opera dancers, could be described as a mystical experience, a trace left by an earlier state of man before the Fall, and that we may aspire to beyond death.  Echos of a Paradise Lost.

What everyone, including people who have nothing to do with the dance, observe in my films, is the relationship between generations, the humility of the youth, and the concern of the elders towards them.  An environment of suave harmony found but rarely elsewhere, even in other branches of art.  The concentration that dancers bring to bear upon their art, is very like fervour.


How do the films stand, in relation to music?

To illustrate Giselle's last steps, in Le Spectre, one hears, for example, Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht ; as a sort of "celestial farewell".  I have practised music very intensively and continue to spend several hours a day with music..

I was quite astonished to learn from Elisabeth Platel herself, that at Nanterre, at the Opera School, the children learn neither piano nor solfege.  To my mind, young dancers need to study music, so they can read on a score, rather than just counting!.

As for myself, when I put the film together, I work with the score in hand, and I mark the choreographic «landmarks» down onto the score..

One of my greatest regrets, insofar as the ballet is concerned, is the lamentable quality of so much of its music.  Mr. Mortier, who is a musician by the way, has said that every time he hears the music for Bayadère, he recoils in horror.  I must say that I incline to share his view.

We seem to have forgotten that happy epoch, rung in by Diaghilev, where the elements that make up a ballet, whether sets, libretto or score, were all to the highest standard.  In agreement with Serge Lifar, Jacques Rouché went ahead with the same policy.  How many original scores had ballets made on them, and now languish on the shelves of the Opera Library?  Poulenc, Honegger, Florent Schmitt, Albert Roussel, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Louis Aubert.  It was Nureyev who "welcomed" Pugni, Minkus et al. into the Opera, and in so doing, drove the orchestra round the bend.

Lifar was a wonderful fellow, quite unlike the stories told of him.  He was courteous to a fault, almost of a bygone age.  And he had been hurt to the quick. He left the Opera under humiliating circumstances, and tried to staunch the wound by accepting, in an « oblative» way, his situation.  He reminded me of Prince Myshkin in Dostoïevsky's Idiot.  Though he suffered greatly from being ostracised, he never complained.  Behind his apparent serenity, one had almost to intuit that he suffered at all.

The way I film dancers has changed.  At first, I tried to add a sort of "choreography of the camera", using travelling shots, and sophisticated moves with the crane.  As time went on though, I realised that one had to be simpler, and that one should refrain from adding camera moves to those of the dancers, as that may adversely affect, or even upstage, the latter.  Paradoxically, movement is best filmed on a fixed plane.  This minimalism, an aesthetic constraint, also happens to tally with the modest financial means at my disposal.

The frame should allow the dancer a space slightly greater, both in terms of height and width, than what he actually needs to dance.  One must allow him breathing space, nor should one "cage" the dancer within too narrow a frame.  This does not prevent one from zooming in on an expression, where one would not see the action in the legs, but one should never cut off the sweep of the arm-span.

After a close-up, I always « back off » to an overview, the moment the dancer begins to do beats or terre à terre work.  The shift in zoom will always correspond to a musical accent, generally to the first beat in the bar.  When we put the film together, all the shots are spliced in accordance with the music, and this I do score in hand.

Each sequence is filmed several times over, leaving kilometres of rushes we then have to sort out.  Do I feel sorry about what's "left behind"?  Only occasionally.  At the moment, I am typing out all of Violette Verdy's master-classes.  Besides the dialogues that appear in the film, I've added what we had taped on the rushes, but didn't use.  To my mind, those texts may become the raw material for a publication, destined for the archives of the history of dance.  As for myself, how very happy I should have been, had we been left such documents on the dancers of the early Twentieth Century!

Violette Verdy was remarkably brilliant, and spoke with such warmth of Balanchine and Robbins that I felt that her words must be set down for posterity.  I do hope that a publisher will be found one day, who will want to use those documents.

Spontaneously, the dancers, whether master or student, forget that they are being filmed.  And as we use several cameras, the shots can generally be pieced together quite readily, without the «seams» shewing.

The film is actually «composed» when we put it together, a process akin to writing a musical score, as one alternates between the brisk and the leisurely, the strongly accented, and the deliberately still.

A professional technician puts the film together on a numerical «bench».  I'm the «writer», and it's rather like polishing one's turn of phrase, just as the poet who must pay heed to the metrical structure.  Yet again, we have not strayed far from music!

At the Centre National de la Cinématographie there is a special account, known as «selective support», to back certain films, and I have been afforded that subsidy for my films on dance.  The hitch, though, is that the precondition for obtaining the subsidy is that someone have already agreed to televise it!  Insofar as the dance is concerned, only Arte and Mezzo are even remotely interested.  Provided those channels pre-purchase the rights to broadcast my films, I can then turn round and ask the CNC for subsidy.  On occasion, there will be other backers who step in, such as the Foreign Ministry, or television channels abroad.

My average film budget is 150,000 Euros, very tight indeed if one does not care to run into the red!  Fortunately, dancers could not precisely be described as greedy, they never argue over fees, and accept whatever I can afford to give them.  I'm most grateful to them.  And of course, one does have to pay the technicians.  I am last served at the table, and allow me to assure you that I have not hit the jackpot with my films on the dance!  Now, however, video and Dvds do offer new outlets.  Doriane Films, my distributor, is in charge of that aspect.

At the moment, I've no fresh film projects.  In point of fact, I had planned to retire from the film trade in 2001, but it was Lifar's centenary that persuaded me otherwise, the more so, as I realised that the Paris Opera had nothing at all on the cards to mark the day.

I should like to do a monograph on Marcia Haydée, a major figure, one who can teach us a great deal about her repertoire:  John Cranko, with whom I've had little to do so far, as well as Béjart and Neumeier.  But so far, not a single television channel has deigned even to study a project that concerns so great an artist, a thing that I find quite distressing.  Let us hope that a producer can be found who may agree to finance it.

Amongst my regrets are the fiction films that will never be made, because the fiasco with Divine caused me to lose all credit with financial backers.  But why pine and repine?  It's morbid, and a drain on one's creativity.  I've turned to writing, and after Corps glorieux, on the ballet, I have just written down my recollections of Federico Fellini, whose assistant I was, and to whom I owe so much.  The book will appear in February 2006, under the title Mes felliniennes années.


Dominique Delouche

Interviewed on September 29th  2005


© Dominique Delouche – Dansomanie / English translation by Katharine Kanter