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'The Company'

Altman's take on the Joffrey is artsy, not artistic

by Mary Ellen Hunt

January, 2004

Well let’s just get this out of the way: Yes, Neve Campbell can dance. Maybe she won't be leading “Swan Lake” anytime soon, but all in all, she looks fine next to the dancers of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago in Robert Altman’s latest flick, “The Company,” which opens nationwide on January 16.

"The Company" in what has been called "Altman-esque" fashion, follows the lives of dancers in the Joffrey, with a script by Barbara Turner that was drawn from hours of close observation of the everyday lives of the company.

Altman said in an interview with the New York Times that he thought movie critics would hate the movie because it doesn’t have a story, and that dance critics will probably criticize the technique. Actually, this dance critic thinks that the technique of the dancers is lovely. I wanted a story.

Throughout the film, there is a sense of contrived, pieced-together action. Dancers come to class. There are hints of rivalries, love affairs, disappointments and joys. Campbell, as a corps member, (or possibly a young soloist?) named Ry, gets a break in a ballet, finds romance with a chef (James Franco), has a meeting with the artistic director (Malcolm McDowell). Other characters, some of them dancers playing themselves, wander on and offscreen, taping their toes, chatting at their lockers, hunting for condoms, arguing with the artistic director. There’s a dance in a storm. There's a Christmas party. A new ballet is staged (Robert Desrosiers eccentric "The Blue Snake"). And then suddenly the movie is over.

It wasn’t until much later, hours after I'd left the theater, that I realized that the overarching concept was supposed to be a chronicle of a season in the life of the Joffrey Ballet.  Maybe it was the curious omission of the entire 22-performance, month-long "Nutcracker" run that threw me.

Most of the players in “The Company” are the actual members of the Joffrey Ballet Company and staff. And so they are asked to play themselves. Nothing is more stultifying than someone saying to you, “Now, just be yourself and act natural….” Casting this way, though does a disservice to the dancers by making their lives look not just natural, but average and not particularly interesting. As Joe Goode, mastermind of the famously theatrical Joe Goode Performance Group, once drawlingly noted, the banal truth is never as interesting as we would like it to be.

Anyway, this type of documentary, “fly-on-the-wall” style was better done by Frederic Wiseman in his 1994 film “Ballet,” which silently tracks the dancers of ABT, and implies no story, even though drama and dancing both abound.

Onstage and off, the Joffrey Ballet Company has always been full of larger-than-life personalities, and the only one who seems to have survived into the script is Artistic Director Gerald Arpino in the character of Alberto Antonelli. McDowell plays Arpino/Antonelli as one would expect: grandiloquent, blustering, vain. Just as Campbell plays Ry the way you'd expect: young, earnest, a little damaged, but optimistic. In fact, most of these characters are what you'd expect and when you hit an unexpected moment, it gets lost in the sea before it can be fully appreciated.

Early in the film, Barbara Robertson, playing the ballet mistress Harriet Ross, warms up alone at the barre before anyone else comes into the studio. When people begin to arrive for company class, she quickly gathers up her bags and scurries off to the dressing room. She emerges in office-wear and never takes a plie again. You can't help but wonder, what's the story? Former ballerina? Career ended by age? Injury? A whole movie could have been made about her, but frustratingly, we never get any more of the story.

Somewhere around the half-way mark, a line from the 1992 underground hit “Strictly Ballroom” began ringing through my head. “It was the dancing that mattered!” And yet, in “The Company” the dancing has gotten short shrift. The array of works shown in the movie is a mixed bag that seem chosen to represent Joffrey’s famously diverse repertoire. There’s Alwin Nikolais’s “Tensile Involvement,” Arpino’s “Light Rain,” “Suite Saint-Saens” – and you have to ask yourself, are these really the ballets that best represent the Joffrey’s past and present? That aside even, the ballets feel chopped to bits, with vertiginous camera angles and quick cutaways to focus on an arm or a foot. Yes, Altman falls victim to the fetishism that strikes many non-dancers and dancers alike: he loves to look at those feet. But it’s the dancing that matters.

Filming dance has always presented multiple challenges. Do you follow a single dancer? Do you make the camera wander among the performers? Go for the artsy shot at the expense of showing the choreography? Or stay put with a static view that shows the whole stage but kills the intimacy? How best, in short, to get the feeling across?

Altman chooses to go the artsy route, which is not to say that it is necessarily the artistic route. The result has a visual impact, but it's the mechanism of the filmic style that you notice, not the qualities of the dance. For instance, Moses Pendleton's swooping "White Widow," in which the dancer sweeps around the stage suspended from a long swing, gets the Ziegfeld Follies treatment with overhead shots that capture a lot of skirt, but misses the dizzying illusion of the aerial cartwheels.

There are shards of "Trinity" and "La Vivandiere" which are gone in sixty seconds, while the biggest chunk of the screentime goes to the piece I least wanted to see, Robert Desrosiers’ mystifying “The Blue Snake.” Anytime you start out with a choreographer saying that he MUST have a 30 foot blue snake, you know you're in trouble. Although it does give us the immortal image of the stage manager, amidst the scurry of red monkeys, puppets and what looks like a blue kentrosaurus, calmly droning the call, "Stand by snake mouth opening."

A scene of a Lar Lubovitch pas de deux "My Funny Valentine" in a thunderstorm is no doubt meant to evoke deep, elegiac emotion with sturm-und-drang. The dancers forge on as rain and storm-detritus blow onto the stage. But wait, isn’t the Joffrey a union company? Why are they permitted to keep dancing under these conditions? Altman may be getting a call from AGMA.

If there's one thing that the film does do for me, it's that it reminds me how hard it is to be a dancer. I'm not talking about the endless grueling rehearsals, aching back or the raw, bleeding blisters (by the way, for those who are non-dancer viewers of the film, the slightly pinkish swelling around Neve Campbell’s big toe joint is nothing compared to what you generally see on dancers' feet.) I mean having to go out there no matter how bad the choreography – or movie, as the case may be — and graciously give their all. The Joffrey, like so many companies around the world, has a troupe of beautiful dancers and they deserved a better showcase than this.

Ballet aficionados have waited since 1948’s “The Red Shoes” for a real ballet movie to be made: one that captures the beauty and struggle of the quirky, talented, intelligent people who populate this art form. Looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer.

Edited by Jeff.

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