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COMPANY, THE(director: Robert Altman; screenwriter: Barbara Turner/based on a story by Neve Campbell and Ms. Turner; cinematographer: Andrew Dunn; editor: Geraldine Peroni; music: Van Dyke Parks; cast: Neve Campbell (Ry), Malcolm McDowell (Alberto Antonelli), James Franco (Josh), Barbara Robertson (Harriet), Robert Desrosiers (Choreographer), members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago; Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: David Levy/Joshua Astrachan/Neve Campbell/Robert Altman/Christine Vachon/Pamela Koffler; Sony Pictures Classics; 2003)
“The film just flies through the air with the greatest of ease just as skillfully as any of these fantastic dancers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Altman (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller”/”Nashville”/”Gosford Park”/M*A*S*H) who will soon turn 79, directs a realistic and marvelously lithe behind-the-scenes insider’s look at a modern dance ensemble based on the Joffrey Ballet (the film was shot in Chicago). The director has said that it’s a Valentine to the hard-working dancers and to those who make the performances possible, and to dance itself. Filmed with the complete cooperation of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago from a script based on the story by Neve Campbell and Barbara Turner. Ms. Turner reportedly spent over two years on and off with the Joffrey, as an observer. Neve Campbell, the popular star of the Scream movies, is an accomplished dancer who studied with The National Ballet of Canada before becoming an actress. This is the story she wanted to tell about her heartfelt experiences while a dancer and is responsible for getting the ball rolling to get this project off the ground. The Joffrey dancers will constitute the main core of the ensemble cast, with Neve Campbell as the only actor who will be working as part of the Joffrey troupe (she did her own dance numbers). Though made on a shoestring budget, the film has a gorgeous look and is technically perfect. This filmmaker, one of the best in the world, has an eye for color, a curious sensibility in his filming style, and a masterful touch in creating a profoundly artistic and gentle work. The ballet sequences were meticulously choreographed by Lar Lubovitch and Robert Desrosiers.

The paper-thin fictional story which gracefully serves as a bridge to the documentary-like dance numbers and rehearsals, never gets trapped in clichés or melodramatic moments as it has the good sense not to get in the way of the extraordinary look the viewer has into what it takes to be such a dancer. Altman used the rehearsals as the heart of the film, where he allows the viewer to feel what it is like to be a dancer and the hard work it entails to reach that stage. Offhand, the only other film I can think of to scale the same heights was Topsy-Turvy. The tensions that arise with the dancers always seem real, from the ego clashes, artistic differences, getting up there in years that plays on the mind of an older performer, competition for parts, or injuries sustained. While the exhausting rehearsals blend in with the actual ‘game day’ performances, the everyday pent up anxieties plus the sifting through of the daily gossip are enfolded as part of the dancer’s endurance test. Their release is through fucking and play time and roasting at a Christmas party their domineering authority figure leader whom they both fear and respect, as their personal lives are shown to blend so easily into their professional lives. It is filmed in such a natural matter of fact way that the film just flies through the air with the greatest of ease just as skillfully as any of these fantastic dancers.

Neve Campbell is Ry, a gifted fledgling company member on the verge of becoming a principal dancer at the Joffrey Ballet. Ry has just broken up with a dancer in the company and meets the handsome Josh (James Franco), a hard-working chef as dedicated to his craft as much as she is to hers. They spend their free time screwing and him cooking her omelettes at her modest pad, where the window faces the train tracks of the el. Malcolm McDowell playing Alberto Antonelli, the company’s co-founder and artistic director, who both coddles and in an autocratic way manipulates his charges to get the best performance out of them while like an ogre in a fairy-tale keeps referring to them as his “babies.” He molds the performers with sharp critical comments, and doesn’t always do it without getting negative feedback–but they do seek his affection and seem to yearn for his attention. Mr. A also handles problems over commerce. His role is to bring about great art and he mixes his artistic teaching skills with his financial skills to achieve that aim. A role that is loosely based on the real-life Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey’s legendary director and choreographer.

Altman shot at least 10 ballets in part or full and they are all a joy to watch, while standout numbers include ” My Funny Valentine,” “Creative Prince,” “Strange Prisoners,” “White Force,” “Light Rain” and “The Blue Snake.” The latter is the spectacular final number by Robert Desrosiers, a primitive tribal sacrifice to the gods in which a snake-line of 20 dancers covered in blue fills the stage with majestic splendor. Two dancers get injured performing this number and are reduced to being spectators in the wings. In one of the opening sequences, Lar Lubovitch’s “My Funny Valentine” is marvelously danced by Ryan and her partner Domingo Rubio (a member of the Joffre). They perform a pas de deux on an outdoor stage in a thunderstorm that causes concern with the management for the performer’s safety while the audience pulls out their umbrellas not wanting to miss this special moment–which proves to be the highlight of the film.

When you compare this film to The Turning Point or Center Stage recent ballet films that scraped their knees over soap-opera stories, you can see how masterful a director Altman is to avoid such pitfalls. It’s no small accomplishment to make such an honest film about the creative process, as this film should satisfy both those aficionados of dance or newcomers to ballet with how seductive and passionate ballet can be–at least, as filmed by the Master.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”