Robert Altman's lovably fussy idiosyncrasy has a way of making his subjects seem like everything and nothing at once. With his infamous zooming camera and shotgun mikes trained on the ballet world, Altman contentedly worms his way through an anti-narrative--called The Company--which mostly makes shorthand of the inescapable dance-movie clichés. As with any dance picture, the soul is on the stage, and though purists will fairly carp at the modern approach of restless editing, Altman's imaginative visual approach to the dance sequences makes for arresting cinema.
Altman's psuedo-documentary piggybacks on the highly regarded Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, with most of the ensemble culled from its ranks. In fact, the project is, as much as it is an Altman film, a thinly veiled labor of love/vanity project for Neve Campbell, who once studied with the National Ballet of Canada. The ambitious Campbell shares story credit with screenwriter Barbara Turner (Georgia) and co-produced the film. More power to her: though it's not hard to pick Campbell out of a lineup of career dancers, her marriage of actorly expressiveness and dancing ability bridges light drama with dance more accessibly, no doubt, than a dancer would acting in the anchor position.
Turner and Altman devise a plot with almost no forward momentum, loosely tracing Campbell's rise in the company. Though she gets her break from the misfortune of another dancer, Campbell's character is guileless. Her personal life in her El-side Chicago apartment consists of fecklessly fending off her nattering mother and romancing a nice-guy chef played by James Franco. She rather incredibly retains her waitress job after scoring a top-tier position in the company, perhaps as an expression of the insidious insecurity fomented in ballet circles.
Altman credibly suggests the backstage dramas without having to make grand jetés out of them. Since Altman wisely resists playing out any one scene through the usual beats, the "inside baseball" business meetings are nicely understated, while still giving a flavor for the political and artistic concerns endemic to the seemingly effortless beauty on stage. Altman allows us to glimpse the drama queendom and camaraderie among the dancers in everyday drudgery (the ensemble dancers sleep on each other's floors) and in the litany of social functions common to an extended family (after-parties, soirées, and birthday dinners).
Malcolm McDowell plays the capricious artistic director, loosely modeled on the Joffrey's own Gerald Arpino, with the hard-earned egotism of the head office: he says to a choreographer "I'm not here," then proceeds to bark direction. Arguing his way through another rehearsal, he defends his contradictions with "That was yesterday--now I want this"; any performer or director will laugh knowingly at this archetypal dictate. Watching the dances, McDowell usually wears a frozen expression of brow-knitted displeasure, but he glories in the finished products of his "babies."
Beginning with the film opening admonition against flash photography and cell phones, Altman gives ballet the full Altman treatment. In the credit sequence, Altman tilts his camera to accentuate the lines and angles of a dance equipped with large ribbons (before plunging into his signature overheard fragments of conversation); other resplendent dance sequences are "White Widow"--an ethereal piece for a solo dancer on a sling (and set to "The World Spins" by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti)—and "The Snake," a Robert Desrosiers dance which invites snickers in its development—and, it turns out, in its execution.
Altman gives us plenty to look at in the wings, on stage, and on the forestage with the choreographers, and his searching camera is more graceful than usual. A show in Grant Park—seen first by day rehearsal, then by night during a storm-wracked performance—exemplifies how Altman layers his art onto the Joffrey's. With virtuosic visual excitement and the tension of character intermingled with the purity of the dance, the sequence represents genuine intimacy (in the romantic commentary of Lar Lubovitch's pas de deux and in the artistic experience itself) and the power of the illusion of intimacy for the audience. The result is the same: rapture, unflagging even as the elements threaten the audience and performers alike. The Joffrey comes off as a gold-standard ballet company, but Altman gives the final bow to the larger-than-life fire-breathing monster placed up-center-stage in the colorful Desrosiers dance. The Company celebrates dance, but never forgets that the dance business chews up most dancers and spits them out.