Much of dance’s beauty depends upon its evanescence. Not only are the performances themselves fleeting, but the intense physical demands carry with them a constant threat of injury. Robert Altman’s new movie about the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, The Company, advances this theme through a loosely woven series of variations—not unlike the soundtrack’s several renditions of “My Funny Valentine,” by Elvis Costello, Chet Baker, and the Kronos Quartet—that deepens the pleasures of the numerous dance sequences.
The film aims for realism throughout: with the exception of actress and producer Neve Campbell, who trained with the National Ballet of Canada before turning to acting, the dancers are all Joffrey members, and the ballets are drawn mainly from the company’s extensive repertoire. Our admiration of the dancers’ considerable skill is honed by an awareness of the associated risk, illustrated during a rehearsal scene when the company’s director, Alberto “Mr. A.” Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell), summons a favorite dancer to demonstrate a passage from the classical ballet they will be performing that evening. In the midst of a succession of quick landings, she loses her footing. An audible “pop” signals that this is no mere slip, and she does not attempt to rise: “I snapped it,” she says, meaning her Achilles tendon. The dancer understands immediately that her career has just ended. She winces, and a sympathetic company member in the background puts her hand to her mouth, but that’s as demonstrative a reaction as we will see. There are no “The show must go on” speeches, no teary declarations of loyalty. It could have been any one of them, they all realize, but the camera registers their sadness and worry and moves on, just as the company must.
Such evocations of life’s uncertainty—an Altman specialty—simultaneously expose the obstacles (physical, financial, and emotional) that the company must overcome in order to mount a production, while placing their skill and dedication in context. The presentation of delicacy, we are reminded, requires great strength. Punishing schedules and low wages are less difficult to manage than the near-constant pain caused by training one’s body to move in impossible ways. It’s only after the intended principal is sidelined with neck spasms that understudy Ry (Campbell) gets the opportunity to dance a pas de deux to “My Funny Valentine” with her partner Domingo (Domingo Rubio). A traditional ballet picture would arrange itself around this youth-usurps-experience storyline, but Altman and screenwriter Barbara Turner (who also wrote 2000’s Pollock) use generic subplots (Ry’s burgeoning romance, competition among the dancers) as background: the ballet matters because it conquers such prosaic circumstances, if only for moments at a time.
When Ry and Domingo do perform “My Funny Valentine,” even the elements seem to conspire against them. Thunder rumbles as they take their places on an outdoor stage, and as they begin their routine, rain falls. The audience opens umbrellas, and Mr. A. instructs one of his assistants to verify that the stage is still dry and therefore safe for his “babies.” Undeterred, Ry and Domingo continue their exceedingly romantic dance (choreography by Lar Lubovich), accompanied by a melancholy piano and cello duet and the percussive sounds of raindrops and rustling leaves.
Altman uses multiple High Definition Video cameras, filming (often in long shots that accentuate the choreographic shapes) from the wings, over the audience members’ heads, past visible stage lights; we never forget that we’re watching a performance, not a movie musical’s dance sequence. The moment is ephemeral, and its memorable blend of sadness and elation is all the more impressive for being achieved through such apparently simple means.
Dance lovers, usually left with only the recollection of their reactions, are sure to appreciate The Company‘s devotion to preserving ballets like the exquisite “White Widow” (choreography by Moses Pendleton and Cynthia Quinn) and the opening “Tensile Involvement” (choreography by Alwin Nikolais) on film. I would not be surprised to find that the rare prospect of having a master director document their art is what led the Joffrey to agree to participate in this production.
But The Company does not restrict itself to performances and rehearsals. A movie about ballet dancing is, almost by definition, a movie about youth. Mr. A.‘s suggested “fish, broccoli, salad” diet aside, they drink, laugh, screw (and bowl!) more than one would expect in a movie so carefully attuned to consequence and sacrifice. The dancers are not only drained by their profession’s demands, but also vitalized. Like thousands of struggling artists, Ry works part-time as a waitress and has an apartment next to the El; when she begins a relationship with a chef named Josh (James Franco), their courtship scenes play like excerpts from a ballet about “Young Love.”
Their first meeting—he spots her earlier, dining at the restaurant where he works—takes place in a local watering hole, as Josh notices Ry shooting pool alone. She plays well, and Josh walks from his seat at the bar to a phone booth near the table. He closes the door and picks up the receiver but keeps his eyes trained on Ry, who knows he’s there but does not yet acknowledge his attentions. As with dance, movement and gesture express all that’s necessary.
Josh returns to his barstool; now they’re smiling and flirting openly. Sizing up a shot, Ry leans against the pool table at an angle recalling a deftly executed shift from flat feet to pointe during “My Funny Valentine.” She knows how to use her body seductively without being too va-voomy, but it’s Josh’s role in this scene that suggests The Company is getting at something deeper than, “Ballet influences all aspects of the dancers’ lives.” Actually, the converse might be more accurate: rather than an art form separate from everyday life, ballet concentrates and ennobles the emotions (joy, frustration, passion, dejection) that form the fragile basis of human interaction.
Heady stuff for a dance movie, but unqualified immersion in the dancers’ world prevents The Company from taking its place alongside Altman’s best work. This is admittedly a minor complaint; accepting the Joffrey’s insular world on its own terms is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the picture’s allure depends upon that surrender to the ballet’s artistic processes. However, I can’t help noting that from McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) to Gosford Park (2001), this director’s greatest achievements are those in which he pulls off the high-wire act of simultaneously observing and commenting on an environmentally-defined set of characters without allowing the balance to tilt in favor of either affection or editorializing. In Nashville (1975), for instance, characters played by Michael Murphy and Geraldine Chaplin introduce an out-of-towners’ perspective for which The Company finds no equivalent. More than passing acknowledgement of the dancers’ vanity, for instance, would not be unwelcome.
By no means a trifle, The Company nevertheless exhibits a surprising dearth of satire (choreographer Robert Desrosiers, playing himself, is the object of some gentle mockery) and narrative distance for an Altman film; even the autocratic Mr. A.‘s disingenuousness seems charming. Perhaps Campbell’s role in developing the project—and Altman’s professed lack of familiarity with the subject matter—brought about the film’s complimentary tone. Again, the method of hinting at but generally avoiding conventional drama provides the key: injury, romance, misplaced trust, fading careers—these brief moments add up to suggest that The Company‘s world has no shortage of stories, but the focus on preparation and performance mirrors the characters’ own priorities.