What does it mean to be a ballet dancer who lives, breathes and looks to be ready to die for his or her art?
The answer to that is to be found in Robert Altman’s “The Company,” an often cynical (what did you expect?) but always ardent gaze at the arduous and strenuous world of dance and ballet.
A dancer can train for years, work 12 hours a day and still have to scramble to be able to afford their own apartment. Only a handful of dancers make it to the top, but even that’s no guarantee of long-lasting success a single injury can end a career in a matter of seconds.
In one scene, a “principal” dancer is defying gravity by doing jets so high that she appears to be suspended by invisible cords. Everyone watches in awed respect, but the next minute she falls; her Achilles tendon has snapped. Quickly, she’s helped off the stage, the understudy is called to continue and the music strikes up again as if nothing happened. Later, the injured dancer returns on crutches to watch from the wings, fearing she will never dance again. Altman never dwells on her inner turmoil, simply moves on (and you can almost sense him shrugging his shoulders) to whatever rehearsal/practice/production is up next.
In collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Altman takes his (digital) camera into backrooms and onto the stage, with his lens moving rapidly. There’s an urgency to “The Company” that speaks of the director’s obsession with his material the more he saw, the more he wanted to document, which accelerated his need to see even more.
“The Company” is crammed with half-told subplots, suggestive scenes that don’t really go anywhere, fragments of meaningful dialogue hacked off mid-sentence, character studies that are suddenly dropped. It’s as if Altman had a massive fear of missing a single sliver of anything that made up the life of Joffrey; it’s as if he had lugged a sleeping bag into the hallway and spent all his time sprinting from dressing rooms to rehearsals to stage productions, and once in the editing room, was loathe to part with a single frame.
“The Company” is shot faux-documentary style, but the fiction-fact boundaries feel blurry from the start. Altman makes no distinction between the real-life Joffrey dancers and his Hollywood cast they all gather at one barre, so to speak, to practice their plis, and although Neve Campbell (one of the executive producers and co-screenwriter) plays the lead, she doesn’t get much more screen time than anyone else.
Altman also has an alter ego dictator running the whole show: Malcom McDowell stars as the pitiless but charismatic “Mr. A,” whose authority is absolute and who has the power to make or break a dancer’s day with a single change of inflexion in his gravelly voice.
Mr. A’s character is actually based on Gerald Arpino, one of Joffrey’s founders and its director of choreography. Like the real-life man, McDowell’s Mr. A is dressed in trademark scarves, straddles his trademark chair to admonish or praise dancers during rehearsals, and calls them “babies.” Despite all this, there’s much to see of Altman in Mr. A (based on the rumors we’ve heard about the director): the immediate respect he commands in spite of his seemingly arbitrary and haphazard decision-making; the knack for drawing out the best from his performers with the vaguest of instructions (“Why are you being so pretty, babies? You know how I hate pretty.”); the way his concern for art is at constant loggerheads with his concern for budget.
Mr. A’s idiosyncrasies are what anchors “The Company” to the realm of storytelling but otherwise, the film is less about story than it is about the fleeting vignettes of the lives of Joffrey dancers.
Neve Campbell, who was a dancer long before she became popular in the “Scream” series, underwent rigorous training and re-fashioned her body to play the role of Loretta Ryan (“Ry”), a junior who’s on her way to becoming a principal, ascending the ladder rung by bloody rung.
Plenty of things seem to happen in Ry’s life: a botched relationship with another dancer; two sets of parents; moonlighting as a cocktail waitress to pay the bills; a new boyfriend (James Franco) who’s sweet and a chef and likes to cook for her. Curiously, however, none of these things that mark her life seem to have had much of an effect on her, and she is devoid of any strong personality traits.
Ironically, Altman films her in such a way that off-stage, her features seem blurred and elusive; it’s only when she’s dancing that she’s suddenly in focus, her figure and face attaining perfect clarity.
For Ry, nothing in her personal life comes close in magnitude and importance to her art. She’s like everyone else in the company: Dance is their very essence. Once they slip into ballet shoes they’re liberated from mundane concerns and emotions. The very best will even have left gravity behind.