In 1932, the avant-garde Spanish radical dramatist/poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote the first in a trilogy of "rural plays," Blood Wedding, an exploration of gender roles and social identity. It remains one of his best-known works.

In 1980, noted flamenco choreographer Antonio Gades turned this play into a one-act ballet, streamlining the plot and jettisoning much of its social impact. While it was in rehearsals, Gades and filmmaker Carlos Saura decided to act on a long-gestating desire to collaborate on a dance movie, and chose this work-in-progress to be their subject. In 1981, the film version of Blood Wedding was released, combining Gades's stage choreography with Saura's precise camera movements into a finished project of equal parts narrative adaptation and art documentary.

What it is not, I'd imagine, is a meaningful adaptation of Garcia Lorca. Based on what I know about his play, which I have not read, I frankly don't see many of its concerns in the film Blood Wedding. Moreover, I am not Spanish, and I cannot honestly claim to understand the writer's place in the national identity of that country, which I am given to believe is significant. So I feel at least a bit nonplussed about making any sort of artistic judgment about what may or may not be a bastardisation of a key text in 20th Century Spanish drama.

Then again, the film doesn't try to be a version of the play: it is about a dance company rehearsing a version of the play. There's a thin distinction there that even the film is occasionally pleased to muddy, but that's the fact of the matter: this is not about social pressure but about the artistic process; not the individual struggling within a community, but about the collaboration that ends in a work of drama.

Accordingly, the ballet "Blood Wedding" doesn't begin until the most part of a half hour has gone by. Instead, it starts off in an empty make-up room, where the company's choreographer (Gades, although whether he is playing "himself" is probably best left as a dry academic exercise) is making sure everything is ready for the impending arrival of his cast. There's a tradition in the more adventuresome films based on stage work (Luhrmann's Red Curtain trilogy leaps to mind, although they weren't even a glint in his eye in 1981; Bergman's Magic Flute is a less anachronistic example) to open on a bare stage, in the final instant before the play begins. The effect is that of a blank canvas, inviting us to enjoy the artificiality of what is about to unfold, to recall that it is being created for us. Blood Wedding goes that one better, by showing us the empty backstage. The blank canvas here is not the stage, which we anyway expect to be full of artifice, but the "real" part of the theater, where the actors and dancers are not characters but are simply themselves. It implies that in this film, the dancers themselves are the characters, not blurring the line between fiction and reality so much as shifting it elsewhere.

Having thus established the paradigm of the story, Saura proceeds to demonstrate exactly what that will be about by ushering in the cast to prepare their make-up and do their warm-up exercises. In two extended sequences, we watch as the corps perform a series of almost mechanical rituals in unison: the make-up sequence is full of cross-cutting from station to station in the room watching as one dancer after another unlocks his or her cosmetic case, and applies lipstick, rouge, kohl and the like. As we jump from one to another and see them all go through essentially identical motions, we find that there's no urge within the film to give them clearly defined individual characteristics; a tendency which is strongly reinforced when the camera alights on Gades, applying mascara, and the ambient noises of the room fade out in favor of a first-person narrative by the choreographer, recalling the chain of events that brought him to this career. He stares into the camera as we hear his story, all very classically done; until without warning the film cuts to another dancer, as the narration continues, staring into the camera in the same way. Then another cut, and another. Being conditioned as we are to read voiceover, this gives the uncanny feeling that the story is meant to apply to all of the dancers. I believe that this sequence is the early flowering of what will prove to be an essential piece of the film's theme: that the dance company is not comprised of individuals per se but is more like a giant organism with component parts, each part working in tandem to create the unified dance that is the organism's raison d'être. This feeling is reinforced in short order by the second extended sequence, in which the whole team performs a warm-up routine, incurring Gades's good-humored wrath as they start out disjointed, only receiving his - and the audience's - praise when they are working in perfect unison.

Throughout all of this, I was reminded (and not just superficially) of Robert Altman's The Company from 2003, perhaps a more familiar treatment of similar material in a nearly identical way. There as here, The Ballet Company seems to be more of a character than the individuals who make it up; the creation of the dance by the whole organism is the primary narrative arc. It's a familiar story from just about every film about artistic troupes ever made, but like any familiar story it can be done well or done poorly. It is done well in Blood Wedding.

With the theme out of the way, the second half of the film is mostly a matter of pure, raw technique, and quite lovely. As I'm fond of complaining, movies about dance far too infrequently incorporate the camera into the choreography in any way, but this film does not fall into that trap: Saura uses zooms and pans and some truly audacious steadicam shots to fully engage the viewer with the physical mechanics of the dance. This follows logically from the film's established focus on the process of creating the dance; since we are already being made to think of the dance as a constructed thing, it is well that it be shot in a way that highlights the movement of the dancers in space and in relation to each other. The bare rehearsal space works for much the same reason: the ballet is stripped of its narrative trappings, leaving only the dancers' bodies.

It all adds up to a great dance film, by which I mean it showcases the flamenco in an essentially cinematic way. It is slightly too intellectual, I suppose - by which I mean, dance is an intuitive art form and I often found myself thinking about the film, rather than feeling it - but it is impeccably crafted, both by the filmmakers and the dancers. I don't know that it's a masterpiece of either art form, but it is a fairly unconventional and intriguing filmed representation of the theatrical process.