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'The Company'

Fleeting Events in a Dancer's World

by Leland Windreich

January 2004

On the way home from seeing Robert Altman's new film on life in the Joffrey Ballet, I contemplated the fact that in the world of dance there are two kinds of choreographers. The first, humbly serving their art with respect and vision, often produce masterpieces. Most of the others manipulate the form for themselves; the results are works of impermanence and, in most cases, insignificance. Nearly all of the dance pieces and ballets excerpted for this film -- and there are many -- fall into the latter category. The fact that the Joffrey Ballet has built its reputation over the years through its reverence for great ballets of the past and has dedicated its resources to restoring them accurately was not a concern for Altman or actress/producer Neve Campbell, who had other objectives in mind.

For Campbell, her goal was to depict the everyday life of dancers in a major ballet troupe, revealing their preoccupations on stage, behind the scenes, and in rehearsals and their involvements outside the theatre. For Altman, it was a chance to explore a world that he knew little about before agreeing to collaborate with Campbell and one which he found fascinating to investigate. Both succeeded admirably, and the film is a delightful collage of vivid images and poignant statements of fleeting events in a dancer's world. As in his other films which dealt with performing arts (country music in Nashville, jazz in Kansas City) Altman is generous in offering footage of performances. In retrospect, it seems that The Company is fifty percent on-stage dancing -- the end product of what goes on in the everyday lives of the actors shown in other scenes portraying dancers (which most of them are, in fact) and ballet masters.

Apparently the choice of repertoire was pretty much up to Campbell. She chose ballets drawn from the offerings of the Joffrey Company which are not currently being performed, notably those by Gerard Arpino. Perhaps she remembered these pieces from her childhood as a ballet trainee at the National Ballet of Canada and as a young balletomane smitten by the topicality of the daring, energetic works which the Joffrey troupe brought on tour in the 1980s. A few anomalies are included, notably a performance of Alwin Nikolais' 1953 work, "Tensile Involvement," which opens the film and shows the dancers in the ensemble struggling to manipulate their bodies while confined by elastic streamers. The Arpino fragments include an excerpt from his quintessential 1981 "crotch ballet," "Light Rain," in which a ballerina is carried by two men, her outstretched legs forming a T with her inverted body.

There are several energetic ensembles and erotic pas de deux from the rep and a few new ones created for the film. Only one episode depicts the dancers responding to the challenge of a classical variation -- an excerpt from the Pas de Six from "La Vivandiere," restored for the company from the 1844 notation of its original choreographer, Arthur Saint-Leon. This, the only item on display in the film to show a ballerina in a tutu, celebrated the brilliant, furious footwork of the terre-a-terre dancing of an era long before ballet became a vehicle for unitard-clad females manipulated in overhead lifts and coital entanglements. It is this more recent era that Campbell extols and that Altman celebrates.

The oddest selection turns out to be the one which becomes the raison d'etre of the film: Robert Desrosier's "Blue Snake," a 1985 creation by a modern dance choreographer for the National Ballet of Canada, and a piece which Campbell personally recalls with conspicuous fondness. The choreographer, now fifty years old, was invited to portray himself in the film, and we see him frequently working in the studio from the point of his arrival to the moment of its premiere on stage. He is sternly advised to keep to the budget by the artistic director, played improbably by Malcolm McDowell.

The ballet, originally a daring effort which had the full support of artistic director Erik Bruhn, who wanted to sweep the cobwebs from the rep of the National, had two enormous three-dimensional sets with large, power-driven mechanical structures, wacky surrealistic costumes, and enough stage effects to rival a science fiction movie. It was immensely popular in Toronto during its long run but, like so many expensive novelties, it was shelved after one season and never revived.

However silly, "Blue Snake" provides a feast for the camera. Campbell must have been sure of its potential effectiveness as a subject for a film. Certainly Altman fell for its glitzy power. For that matter, with few exceptions, all of the dancing scenes are translated magically into the film medium, and the eye is continually enchanted by the erotic imagery and kinetic flow in each episode.

I rather doubt that "The Company" will be as effective in encouraging a career in ballet for young people as were "The Red Shoes," "The Turning Point," and "Billy Elliot." Altman, who invariably uses virtuoso actors who command and hold our attention throughout his films and can document and develop the personal lives of up to twenty-eight characters, does not bother to motivate the cast of this plot-less film. The young people portraying themselves as ballet dancers are introduced briefly, and whatever issues they reveal to us are promptly abandoned. We identify an aging diva, a nagging ballet mother, a boy suffering the humiliation of dismissal from a ballet; we witness spats among the artistic staff and conflicts with the director; we see young dancers bowling, playing pool, drinking beer, borrowing condoms; we are shown an artistic director so lacking in tact and discretion that you wonder how he could ever gain the respect of his dancers.

Even Campbell -- who, as the star of the film, plays an ensemble dancer who earns a few important roles, dances skillfully and with dedication, has a ongoing affair with a local chef, and lives in a tacky flat on the elevated railway line -- is given no dialogue that might afford her character the kind of shape that might inspire emulation. Altman delivers instead a documentary mosaic of the participants in the rarefied milieu of a working ballet company. And he does this with style and a deep acknowledgment of the power that dancing can have on us all.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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