writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

The Inside View

Robert Altman's The Company

by Rita Felciano
Copyright ©2003 by Rita Felciano

With The Company director Robert Altman created a gentle hermetically self-contained world into which reality bursts like momentary gusts of wind when opening a window. As has been his wont throughout his long film career, Altman blurs the line between fiction and fact when taking us inside a somewhat mythologized Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. In this case the approach served him particularly well. Ballet is an arcane universe but is inhabited by surprisingly human beings. The Company captures this double perspective with considerable success. One would only wish that the works shown in performance were of higher quality.

Not much of a plot animates this otherwise sweet little film. It traces the love and work life of an ambitious but amiable young dancer, Ry (Neve Campbell who also co-wrote the story with Barbara Turner) and her chef boyfriend Josh (an affable James Franco). But the real story, as the title indicates, is the company. Altman weaves a richly textured fabric of off-stage life, rehearsals and performances. Periodically he introduces little dollops of personal drama. However, those never interfere with the film’s trajectory. He plops them in much like close-ups on a face. It’s an excellent way of bringing individuals momentarily to the surface without having to develop characters.

Altman’s perspective on ballet is realistic. Blessedly unromantic, there are times when the film almost feels like a documentary. Injuries are simply a blimp on the radar screen. So is aging. People take a deep breath and go on. Deborah (Deborah Dawn), is a 43 old dancer who knows what her body can no longer do but who also stands her ground when the repetiteur wants to change a well established piece of choreography.

As the film opens we see Susie (Susie Cusack) almost furtively sneak out of the studio just before company class. Next we see her as an administrator but who still needs the ritual of the work even if she has do it alone at the crack of dawn. In another scene, Alec (Davis Robertson), cross-cut with Ry’s relaxing at home, feverishly improvises late at night. Later on he butts heads with the company director, Alberto Agnelli (Malcolm McDowell), who refuses to prominently feature the young man’s choreography, and we can assume that this dancer is on his way out. Altman doesn’t lead you by the hand. He just throws out clues and you have to draw the lines between them.

But Altman also manages to infuse this stark, but probably realistic world of ballet with its moments of humor. A dancer’s coming late for class upsets the pecking order at the barre when one dancer after another has to move down to a less desirable spot. An ominous looking sleuthing expedition late at night turns out to be a dancer on a emergency hunt for a condom. A holiday party with a roasting of the staff is both amusing and painful in its enforced hilarity.

McDowell creates a more than a little eccentric "Mr. A." Apparently he hung around Arpino for weeks to catch some of the choreographer’s idiosyncracies. So one can assume that the Joffrey’s artistic director must be a slippery character with an uncanny ability to circumvent potential conflict, a man who delegates easily, especially unpleasant tasks, who butters up anybody he needs to and who gets exactly the results he wants. He may appear whacky but he is in total control.

Off-stage Altman depicts an environment that is bursting with energy but also curiously claustrophobic. Offices are so tiny that the staff can hardly move; schedules and meetings are always in flux. People spill out of doorways; dancers barely have a place to sit in their dressing rooms or turn around in front of their lockers. And when they go out they move as a pack into packed restaurants and sleep practically on top of each other.

In contrast to this sense of confinement, the dance sequences are generously timed, giving the choreography a chance to breath. None of excerpts are cut to the point of being unable to make an impact. The biggest surprise were Arpino’s dances, Trinity, Suite Saint-Saen and Light Rain. They looked better on screen than they ever did on stage. It clearly helped to have a good cinematographer (Andrew Dunn) and a smart editor (Geraldine Peroni).

Two solos—no credit given for performance—also looked good. Moses Pendleton and Cynthia Quinn’s White Widow, with a woman on a trapeze, did manage to develop something of an emotional trajectory, shown as it was shown in rehearsal and in performance. The excerpt from La Vivandiere Pas de Six, a lovely solo of floating arms on top of spitfire footwork was so short that you wanted to weep. Unfortunately, this was the only piece of really good choreography, and it quite outclassed the rest of the rep.

Two choreographers, Lar Lubovitch and Robert Desrosiers rehearsed their own works. Lubovitch’s pas de deux, My Funny Valentine was also seen in an outdoor performance during a rain storm. Nobody in the audience was shown leaving, which stretches credulity.

Desrosiers, rehearsing Desrosiers' 1989 The Blue Snake—whose birth already exists on film—almost seemed like a parody of the stoned artist. The work, an incredible spectacle of padded costumes and a monster head that devours dancers infused with some vague ideas about spirituality—is an elaborate circus number that has nothing to do with dance. One couldn’t help but wonder whether Altman here wasn’t being ironic. After all the thunderous applause that greeted this spectacle, which didn’t ultimately look quite as bad as feared was accompanied by lounge music.

Considering, the high melodrama which seems to curse ballet films, one can only hope that The Company is setting a standard for others to follow. Maybe with some really good dances.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 3
January 19, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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