Doodad Kind of Town

"The Company"
May 5, 2008, 1:30 am
Filed under: Robert Altman

The following article is part of the Invitation to the Dance blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films.

I’ve never been a lace-tutu-and-pink-ballet-slipper kind of girl.

There’s not a pastel color to be found in my closet, nor has a single Degas print ever graced the walls of my home.

“The Red Shoes” I didn’t get at all. While women around me were sniffling and sobbing, I was rolling my eyes and thinking “Why would a beautiful, talented woman like Moira Shearer throw herself off a balcony over a drip like Marius Goring?”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that my favorite ballet film is thoroughly unsentimental and unconventional. Moreover, it was directed by the man whose work had such an impact on me as a teenager that I wanted to become a film critic just so I could capture and share what I had found in it — Robert Altman.

“The Company” wasn’t initially an Altman project, but rather the idea of Neve Campbell. Yes, that’d be Neve Campbell of the “Scream” movies and “Party of Five.” Not exactly the first name that comes to mind when you think “ great dance film,” but Campbell, in fact, was a dancer from the age of six, trained in classical ballet. It was her dream to make a realistic film about life in a dance company, and she and screenwriter Barbara Turner spent over a year observing and traveling with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company in preparation. Altman was Campbell’s first choice to direct, and – despite his protests that he knew nothing about dance and didn’t know how to approach the film – he eventually accepted the challenge.

Altman shot the film in Chicago, where Neve Campbell became a sort of temporary member of the Joffrey company, training and performing with them while playing the role of an up-and- coming dancer named Ry. And apart from Malcolm McDowell (who steals many a scene as the imperious, self-absorbed artistic director), all other dancers, choreographers and administrators are played by actual members of the Joffrey Ballet company itself, giving the film an unspectacular but engrossing, documentary-like feel.

It’s not a heavily plotted film. There’s a story of sorts, but it doesn’t have a predictable dramatic arc. What we get instead is a look at one season in the life of the Joffrey company. We see rehearsals, performances, staff meetings, even the annual “Christmas Roast” at which the dancers spoof the ballets they’ve performed over the past year. Through it all, Altman keeps a respectful distance from the dancers, both emotionally and physically. We’re allowed to observe the daily hubbub of hallway conversations and dressing room banter, but the camera is held at a discreet distance and the sound design is conceived so that those hallway conversations have the feeling of being overheard in passing, rather than the focus of a scene. Except for occasional scenes in Ry’s apartment, we see very little of the dancers’ personal lives.

“The Company” touches on the themes common to all films about ballet dancers: the physical demands, the potential for serious injury, the competition to become a principal dancer, and the difficulty of having a satisfying personal life outside of the dance studio. But it deviates from the standard ballet film template in the lack of dramatic weight it gives to these issues. You have to watch very carefully to catch moments such as the crestfallen expression of a dancer after she’s cut from a number or the interchanges between Ry and a male dancer about their recent romantic breakup. Such moments are treated casually, even perfunctorily.

When one dancer falls while executing a series of jetes (we hear her Achilles tendon snap with an abrupt, sickening sound), the camera doesn’t allow us close enough to really see her reaction. Instead, Altman cuts to an overhead shot of the injured dancer sitting on the stage floor, then cuts back so we can see her being briefly attended to and carried off stage, then brusquely replaced by another dancer. Later we’ll see her on crutches, watching in the wings as her replacement performs, but we still won’t be able to tell how she feels about it.

In the film’s final performance scene, Ry dances a featured role, but falls and badly injures her shoulder. She’s rushed off and quickly replaced for the finale (and it wasn’t until my third viewing that I realized that the dancer who replaces Campbell is the same one she replaced in an earlier ballet). Moments later, as the company takes its curtain calls, Campbell is shown laughing with her boyfriend offstage, her arm in a sling.

The message is clear: pain and heartbreak are all a part of the company’s daily business. The dancers deal with it and move on. Emotional and physical traumas are swept to the edges of the film, while the dancing itself becomes the central and overriding focus. (Unlike lesser directors who’ve made forays into the unfamiliar territory of the dance film, Altman mines the real drama from the dance numbers, not from the backstage/rehearsal room doings. If only Richard Attenborough had learned that lesson before he desecrated “A Chorus Line.”)

There are ten ballets in “The Company,” each filmed in its entirety. And every time a ballet begins, the film comes to a hushed halt and we witness moments that are perfect and beautiful and remind us what all that pain, struggle and discipline are in service of. Because they’re shot in high-definition video, these scenes come closer than those in any other dance film I can recall to giving a sense of “being there,” of witnessing a live performance rather than one staged exclusively for film. Plus the technique allowed Altman to shoot with as many as five cameras, and the variety of angles – from full-stage shots to close-ups of individual dancers to the occasional aerial shot – are seamlessly edited to convey the energy and flow of movement in each ballet.

Campbell’s Ry is refreshing and unique among film ballerinas in that she doesn’t seem particularly invested in becoming a principal dancer. The possibility is discussed, but at the film’s end it still isn’t clear whether she’ll achieve that status, and Campbell gives no indication that she cares one way or another. She seems satisfied just to be in the corps.

Even more refreshing: Ry manages neither to have her heart broken by the company lothario (as did Leslie Browne in “The Turning Point” and Amanda Schull in “Center Stage”), nor to find true love incompatible with her dedication to dance (as did the aforementioned Moira Shearer). Rather, she’s allowed to have a happy, thriving relationship with a handsome chef (James Franco.) And that relationship is foreshadowed in the film’s most heart-stoppingly romantic pas de deux.

Campbell and Joffrey dancer Domingo Rubio dance to “My Funny Valentine” on an outdoor stage, just as a thunderstorm is picking up strength. Winds blow the musicians’ sheet music off their stands, the audience puts up umbrellas, rain pelts the stage. And yet the two dancers continue, flawlessly and sinuously wrapping themselves around each other, seemingly lost in each other and in the dance. The wind and rain only intensify the romantic poignancy and yearning in the ballet, suggesting two young lovers who cling to each other in the face of all adversity. See for yourself:

Ry and her boyfriend will also face some disappointment and adversity, but when the closing credits roll, they’re still happily together. And to underscore the ballet’s significance, we hear some version of “My Funny Valentine” playing in the background of every one of their scenes together.

“The Company” ultimately gives a compelling depiction of how beautiful and powerful great dancing can be without over-romanticising the process. Likewise, it fully conveys how difficult and painful it can be to dance beautifully, but without suffocating its dancers in tragedy.
Its greatness lies in Robert Altman’s measured, clear-eyed approach, and shows what a great filmmaker can bring to even the most unfamiliar of worlds. I, for one, am glad he accepted Neve Campbell’s challenge.


7 Comments so far
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Pat – This is an absolutely brilliant review, and I’m very glad you took up this movie. It’s sometimes thought of as a lesser Altman, though I think that’s more Altman’s fault for being self-effacing in the extreme about it. I’m so glad you mentioned the “My Funny Valentine” pas de deux. It is truly extraordinary and captures the kind of love dancers have for the art.Excellent, and thank you again for participating.

Comment by Marilyn

Pat, I am a major Altman fan, and I don’t believe I’ve read a better treatment of one of his films. For me, “The Company” has been one of his minor films. I’ll have to go back and re-examine it again, using your wise comments as guide.

Comment by Rick Olson

Marily = Thanks, and thanks for hosting this blogathon. It was a lot of fun putting this together, and equally fun to read everyone’s posts.Rick -And thank you! I think “The Company” gets better with repeated viewings. There are so many extremely subtle details that you just don’t pick up the first time you see it. I watched it twice in the last week – my third and fourth viewings to date – and found many things I hadn’t noticed before.

Comment by Pat

Excellent work here Pat. My film vocabulary is conspicuously lacking in Altman, although you’ve done a wonderful job distilling the essence of the film.

Comment by Evan Derrick

Pat, this is terrific…I never noticed the multiple renditions of “Funny Valentine”, so I’m going to have to go back to this.I must admit I’m not much of a Neve fan, so the scenes with her and her boyfriend don’t work for me that well. But every dance scene in this film is just beautifully done.

Comment by Bob Turnbull

Bob- Thanks for stoppng by. I’m not a big Neve Campbell fan myself (and, to be honest, I think the chemistry between her and Franco to be a little lacking), but I give her props for putting this film together and getting Altman to do it.Evan – Thanks. I’m a huge Altman fan, but I do find sometimes find it difficult to clearly express what I love about his work. If I was able to do it this time, that makes me happy.

Comment by Pat

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.

Comment by 22

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