What's great about The Company is that it really is about a company. It presents the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago as a vital organism fascinating at rest, gripping in its struggles to survive and thrilling when it springs to full life on stage.
Director Robert Altman (now 79), the past master of movie ensemble pieces, fictionalizes a year in the life of the Joffrey with inspirational freshness. He provides a welcome shock to a jaded moviegoer's system - a full blast of artistic oxygen.
Ry (Neve Campbell), a young dancer on the eve of discovery, is the nominal heroine. But Altman depicts her victories and travails without emotional inflation: her romance with a handsome restaurant chef (James Franco), her handling of her pushy mom (Marilyn Dodds Frank) and her need to moonlight as a waitress in a Goth bar. These elements are just part of the weight any dancer carries as she toes her professional and private tightrope.
The movie purifies backstage shenanigans - working from a story cooked up by Campbell and Barbara Turner, Altman rediscovers the human matter of theatrical melodrama. Ry gets a chance to shine when another dancer tries to work injured but can't. Ry takes over her role and pulls it off beautifully during an outdoor performance in a thunderstorm. But she knows this splash won't turn her into an overnight sensation or guarantee that she'll stay healthy.
The whole ethic of these dancers is to accept ups and downs in stride: Ry doesn't flinch during their satiric Christmas extravaganza when her ex-boyfriend and a partner parody her rainy triumph. And we see variations on Ry's determination ripple through the troupe, whether in the mini-drama of a male dancer (David Gombert) and his ambitious coach (Yasen Peyankov); the glimpse of company members living hand-to-mouth and cheek-by-jowl in a group apartment; or, the cascading thumbnail sketches of each dancer keeping in fighting trim and tip-top mental shape for a chance to achieve a personal best.
The Company, which opens tomorrow at the Charles Theatre, is the opposite of ballet movies like The Turning Point. Rather than amp up the off-stage writing and performances to match the sweeping aesthetic and emotional effects of the choreographers, Altman lets the dancers retain their emotional remoteness. They have the electric yet Olympian dignity that world-class athletes used to have before they were encouraged to grandstand for crowds and cameras. Of course, these dancers also share the vulnerability to age and injury of athletes, so we feel protective toward them even at their peak of virtuosity.
And Campbell, a former ballet dancer herself, subsumes herself so wonderfully into a dancer's life that we discover aspects of grace, confidence and rootedness that are harder to find in her more histrionic roles.
The exception to the troupe's low key is Malcolm McDowell's tremendously engaging interpretation of the company's artistic director. McDowell gives the lie to the old canard that when you can fake sincerity you've got it made. Helets loose with flattery and hucksterism so transparent that it's funny, but what counts is that everyone realizes the impulse behind it - his need to succor his company. When he's dead-honest he's lethal, and he focuses like a laser on the dancing.
So does Altman. He's kept on learning: after failing to get even the tap-dancers' feet in the frame in his 1993 TV rendering of the stage show Black and Blue, here (with cinematographer Andrew Dunn) he goes beyond "putting the camera in the right spot." He places it in the unexpected spot to capture individual accomplishment, the fulfillment of the choreographer's vision, and above all the fluidity of the ensemble performance. He's at his greatest in the Lar Lubovitch-choreographed pas de deux that Campbell and Domingo Rubio writhe through elegantly to the tune of Rogers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine"; its tender, calibrated slithers and air of ecstatic melancholy make it the best love scene of this young decade.
But Altman is also deft at showcasing the seamless togetherness of the company forming elastic arabesques with ribbons in Alwin Nikolais' "Tensile Involvement." Director and dancers catch the audience up in a web of imagination.
Yeats asked, "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Altman can - he honors both.
Starring Neve Campbell
Directed by Robert Altman
Rated Rated PG-13 (brief strong language)
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Time 112 minutes
Opens tomorrow at the Charles Theatre.
Sun Score: *** 1/2