"The Company" is a lovely commercial for the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago (for New Yorkers this is in fact the same modern ballet company that used to be based at City Center but left the competitive dance fund raising environment here to have the stage to itself in Chicago).
A labor of love for producer/story writer/star/former dancer Neve Campbell, she was determined to make the first film about a whole company, not just using the dance world for a backdrop of individual melodrama, and with long passages of actual performances. So she brought in the primo director of ensembles, Robert Altman. But clearly she made compromises to get the film made that put his creativity as a director in a straight jacket and only lets his trademark talents fleetingly shine through.
The key was getting the Joffrey's cooperation and I can only imagine the tough negotiations that resulted in this pretty much being a whitewash of the ballet world, or of any creative endeavor, in sharp contrast to the behind-the-scenes reality shows "Project Greenlight" on HBO or "The Fire Within" about Cirque du Soleil's "Varekai" that was on Bravo. I surmise a long list of thou shalt not's that appear to include items such as:
-- no views of the non-artistic administrators, board, or fund raisers (there's a passing exhortation to a flashy choreographer Robet Desrosiers to stay within the budget, but he gets the complicated costumes and sets he wants anyway);
-- no homosexual relationships (there's a passing reference to the dancers AIDS has taken including "Bob", which cognoscenti have to know refers to the company's founder Robert Jeffrey, and Malcolm McDowall as the egotistical artistic director "Alberto Antonelli," a stand-in presumably for current company director Gerald Arpino, urges fellow Italian-American men not to make their boys, like he had to, "hide their ballet shoes");
-- no eating disorders (we do twice hear "Mr. A," half-jokingly, urge the company to eat salads and vegetables and there's one fast, quiet exchange in passing that I think was about diet pills);
-- blame dancers' problems on dysfunctional parents and mentors, recalling that vivid song from "A Chorus Line" - "Everything was beautiful at the ballet" as dancers seek to escape messy situations through temporary perfect beauty.
Altman does get to assert his artistic priorities in a few ways. He effectively seizes on the ageism in dance, showing that it's not just the tyranny of aging bodies, as would affect any athlete, but that dancers with experience speak up for themselves and are more difficult to control in a viciously autocratic environment than ambitious, financially desperate, and, literally, pliable young dancers.
It's also the first time I've seen a camera expose the swarm of acolyte assistants to the director, revealing them as ex-dancers whom "Mr. A" still dismissively calls "babies" and who resent the new stars even as they dance vicariously through them.
The other beautiful Altman touch is when the significant character developments take place not center stage in a crowd but through a look or line happening way in the corner of the screen, like the expression on James Franco, as Cambell's chef beau, when she avoids introducing him to her family amidst a rush of congratulators.
But visually and musically the Joffrey is a wonderful choice, as the choreographers represented range from Arpino to Alwin Nikolais to Laura Dean and MOMIX. A centerpiece danced by Campbell is a sexy Lar Lubovitch pas de deux to the signature song "My Funny Valentine" which is used as a leitmotif, for reasons that still seem murky to me after hearing Altman explain why on "Charlie Rose," throughout the film in versions also by Elvis Costello, Chet Baker, and the Kronos Quartet. The music ranges from classical to jazz to the ethereal pop of Julee Cruise, Mark O'Connor's in-between "Appalachia Waltz", and the lovely score by Van Dyke Parks.
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