What a joy this film is. From its opening performance of the brisk, intricate piece "Tensile Involvement" to the final puff of smoke across the supremely gaudy and pretentious "The Blue Snake", Robert Altman's long, loving glimpse into the world of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet is a masterful construction.
The project was initiated by young star Neve Campbell (in collaboration with brilliant writer Barbara Turner), but it is by no means a vanity vehicle for her. Indeed, it is easy to lose the plot thread of her character, Ry – both her professional development as a new dancer and her evolving love life with a chef, Josh (James Franco). Campbell, the highly recognisable actor, quickly blends in with the many Joffrey dancers used in the cast.
Everything is understated in this movie. Altman clearly knows every hoary cliché of the dance movie genre, from The Red Shoes (1948) to Center Stage (2000). And he uses them all – the bitchiness between dancers, the crucial broken tendon that gives an understudy her big chance, the emotional manipulations of the dance company director (played with malevolent glee by Malcolm McDowell), the endless struggles between financial compromise and artistic integrity.
But this film is a flow of incidental details, not a melodrama with high and low points. We slip constantly from signs of crisis and conflict into the small events of everyday life, just as we glide from rehearsals to performance and back again.
At the age of seventy-nine, Altman has at last found the perfect technology to express and enhance his well-worn, eavesdropping style of direction. Shot in wide-screen, high-definition video and transferred to film, The Company sits, at every moment, on a fragile threshold between documentary and fiction, between life-itself and drama.
The effect is breathtaking: normally ordinary things become momentous, while conventionally dramatic events are downplayed to the point of invisibility.
Anyone interested in the relation between dance and cinema must see this film. Altman's close relationship to theatre – to the extent of writing and staging an opera based on the classic novel and film Greed (1925) – is often overlooked in accounts of his career.
Altman professes to having known little about dance before making The Company. But what he has clearly known for a long time is the strange thrill of the theatrical experience for anyone who presents himself or herself on a stage before an audience.
In the film's most surreal and magnificent sequence, a dance takes place in an open-air venue, prey to the elements of wind and rain. As wet leaves blow onto the stage and 'Mr A' (McDowell) worries about whether to shut down the show before an accident occurs, we witness a sublime performance poised somewhere between the chaos of reality and the artifice of art. Only cinema could have evoked and captured such a moment.
All the dance scenes are filmed with similar verve. As always, Altman's feeling for bodies in motion (whether on stage or off) is matched by his magpie sense of musical culture – here mixing Van Dyke Parks, classical pieces, and many touching versions of "My Funny Valentine".
Altman has a weakness for satire which has sunk some of his lesser films, such as the dismal Prêt-à-Porter (1994). Here, however, his penchant for taking a few cheap shots – especially at choreographer Robert Desrosier, gamely playing himself as the creator of "The Blue Snake" – is redeemed by another, subterranean movie reference.
Didn't the Fred Astaire classic The Band Wagon (1953) also send up the avant-garde rotten? But, like Vincente Minnelli in that movie, Altman's creative generosity ultimately extends to every kind of performance, highbrow or lowbrow, planned or inadvertent. The Company raises light entertainment to a heavenly realm.
© Adrian Martin May 2004