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Insider Film Review, 7-24: "The Company"
Looking at Ballet Through a Telescope
By Robin Hoffman
Copyright 2003 Robin Hoffman
First, let me tell you
what's wonderful about "The Company," Robert Altman's new film.
Remember "The Turning Point"? Remember all those wonderful shots
of some of the greatest dancers of the day performing on film? That's
exactly it. The dancing by the members of the Joffrey Ballet of
Chicago is beyond reproach at worst; by that I mean it's mostly
plain brilliant. This film contains a bouquet of beautifully shot
footage of some very fine dancing in performances and rehearsals.
There are also things like a wonderfully meditative study of the
foot of the dancer performing Moses Pendleton's "White Widow." This
dance is performed on a swing, with one pointe contacting the ground,
around which the dancer spins like a top. Close-ups of her foot,
with the soft scrape of her pointe shoe on the floor captured in
blue lighting, become so mesmerizingly beautiful that I even forgot
to be annoyed that I couldn't see the choreography.
I felt that actress Neve
Campbell did an amazing job of fitting in as a member of this top-notch
professional ballet company. I was a member of the New York company
in the early '90s, and a member of Joffrey II in the early '80s,
and she sucessfully convinced me. She did all her own dancing, and
I was most impressed.
But is this film a realistic
look at what it really means to be a professional ballet dancer?
Well, if you were to train a telescope on a ballet company and watch
from a great distance, this is what you might see, I guess. That's
where I feel cheated. Writer Barbara Turner spent almost two years
visiting the JBC to observe and write. In the press kit notes, she
says she spent time with the dancers after hours, asking them about
their backgrounds and their lives. Only the most surface evidence
of this research made it into the film. It succeeds in showing the
superhuman strength and professionalism required of these dancers,
and some of the humble living conditions they endure, but totally
fails to portray them as real human beings who make very real sacrifices
to be able to do their jobs.
Now a warning: the following
contains some spoilers.
Actually, I'm a little
shocked that Campbell, credited as a co-writer and co-producer of
this project, allowed her character to have so little development.
We see her up to the task of dancing what she is given, stepping
in when Maia Wilkins has to stop rehearsing a principal role because
of a neck spasm. We see her cry once alone in her apartment, I wasn't
sure why; I think it was over her dancer-boyfriend dumping her for
someone else. But then she meets someone new in a bar, and that's
the end of that. She's all smiles from then on. No struggling with
ambition and disappointment. No going over her new roles in her
apartment ("doing your homework," as Robert Joffrey used to say).
No nerves before a rehearsal with the artistic director. No dancing
on pointe through painful blisters, even. And this new boyfriend!
For months they see each other and apparently never get close enough
for him to have questions about why her job completely engulfs her
life, pushing him out from time to time. The film completely skips
this issue. In one scene, she comes home late on Christmas Eve to
find that he has prepared a beautiful dinner for two (he's a chef),
but he's fast asleep on her couch, the dinner cold. That would be
sort of realistic except that the company is on layoff, and she's
coming home from waitressing in a club! Not from a reception, not
from an after-hours rehearsal to quickly learn a part in order to
replace someone who is suddenly injured, but from a non-dancing
The cocktail waitress
thing really bugged me. Why couldn't she collect unemployment? I
have never known a professional dancer in a major ballet company
to waitress during layoffs. Of course, I don't know everything.
Maybe they pay her "under the table." But in this scene with the
boyfriend I just feel like the movie most misses the point. A dancer's
life is filled to capacity with her job. Not only developing technically,
but developing artistically -- not to mention taking care of your
body so you can do both -- overshadows everything most of the time.
In any relationship you have, your partner comes to understand that
dance simply has to come first, or you cannot be happy, even though
it seems to torment you at the same time. Press notes describe Campbell's
character as "a gifted but conflicted company member on the verge
of becoming a principal dancer." None of this came across in the
One subplot that does
give us a chance to empathize with a character surfaces when company
dancer/emerging choreographer Alec (played by Davis Robertson) argues
with his artistic director (played by Malcolm MacDowell) for a premiere
date for his new ballet. Robertson manages to imbue his performance
with enough passion and naturalness that we really believe his frustration.
Unfortunately, that's all we get to see of that story.
I conclude that director
Robert Altman hesitated to take the dancers down from the pedestal
on which he had placed them long enough to tell a real story. It's
too bad. The actors would have been up to it and so would the dancers,
especially Robertson. This project originated with Campbell, and
maybe she will make another dance movie someday. If anybody has
the understanding, especially now, to do a good job, it might be
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