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Flash 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 odd-job.

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 film.

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 her.

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