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The Company

by Stuart Sweeney

May 19, 2004 -- London

Image: Neve Campbell in "The Company."

“The Company” has not been well received by a majority of the UK critics or the Royal Ballet dancers interviewed about the film in The Guardian. However, I found it an exhilarating and beautiful experience and I can understand why Altman believes it as one of his best films. In my view he has captured something of the experience of an early 21st Century dance company and has served both art forms well.

It was useful to read about the movie beforehand in order to have some idea of what it is and, more important, what it is not. Dance goers accept the idea of a plotless ballet or one where relationships are indicated with a few brush strokes and Altman has adopted this approach to the making of the film. Further, the veteran film-maker has always been a modernist and, although more accessible than films with dislocated time, like those of Alain Robbe-Grillet, "The Company" uses time and space jump cuts and avoids the usual narrative devices, such as: "Let me introduce you to Lar Lubovitch the famous choreogrpher."

The film comprises an elliptical collection of snapshots of a ballet company’s season. Although we see signage for the Joffrey and it's the Joffrey repertory and dancers we see, my impression is that it is one step removed from the exact reality of Chicago’s famous company. "The Company" focuses on daily life – administration, classes, disputes, reviews and the preparation of two works in particular. We see excerpts from a number of performances, chosen apparently not because they are great dance, but because they will make great, filmed dance. And, boy oh boy, cinematographer Andrew Dunn and Altman have produced some of the most wonderful filming of dance I have seen, with sophisticated cross cutting and angles from the wings with flaring lights, etc, that enhance rather than distract from the dance spectacle. Some commentators have criticised the choice of ballets and the fact that we don’t see the works straight through. But the film is about a company with this style of repertory and rather than about the ballets themselves, it focuses on the company staging them and I found that an engrossing theme.

The Neve Campbell character, Ry, gets more attention than the others and one of the weaker aspects is her lightly sketched relationship with a young chef. It’s good to see a love story without every turn underlined three times, but the sweetness of the affair, with the one hiccup of a ruined meal, seems in contrast to the Artistic Director's cry at a rehearsal of “I don’t like pretty.” On the question of realism, I don’t know whether US corps de ballet dancers work in bars on free evenings, but it’s certainly a feature of the UK contemporary dance community and the sub-plot of an apprentice sharing a crowded flat is convincing.

Malcolm McDowell as Ansenelli, the company's artistic director, is surrounded by professional ballet people and, unsurprisingly, is the least convincing of the staff members. He is depicted as very much of the old school and my impression is that the current crop of ADs in the UK are much more focused and artist oriented. However, I did enjoy his plea at an award luncheon for more tolerance for boys doing ballet. For those who have practical experience or have had the privilege of observing rehearsals and class there won’t be many surprises, but these scenes are filmed in a convincing way with a slight question mark about McDowell’s interjections.

The most beautiful dance sequence is the Lar Lubovitch duet overtaken by a storm on an open-air stage. The combination of the emotionally intense choreography and the leaves and rain sweeping around the dancers almost had me in tears. The final ballet, Robert Desrosiers’ “The Blue Snake” is primarily an eccentric visual feast and Altman is clear that this is why he selected it, rather than for the choreography, although I’ve seen worse.

Overall, my message is: don’t be put off by the critics – this is a convincing and constantly interesting depiction of life in a medium sized ballet company.

Edited by Jeff.

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