Some audiences see this one-of-a-kind spellbinder and complain that there’s no plot. What they mean is there’s none of the usual soap-opera bull you find in ballet films from The Turning Point to Center Stage. Neve Campbell — yes, the Scream queen — not only acts and dances in the film, she sparked the project. Having studied at the National School of Ballet in her native Canada, Campbell longed to see the daily life of a ballet company done honestly on film.
Along with screenwriter Barbara Turner (Pollock), she crafted a story. Then she asked Robert Altman to direct. Excellent choice. Altman is expert at community interaction: the surgeons of M*A*S*H, the musicians of Nashville, the Hollywood connivers of The Player, the aristocrats of Gosford Park. Using the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Altman turns The Company into a celebration of spirit, showing the gargantuan effort of many people to create an art that seems lighter than air.
Campbell gives her best screen performance as Ryan, a Joffrey dancer on the rise in the view of company director Alberto Antonelli, played by Malcolm McDowell, who swans through the role without neglecting the strain placed on a man who must stay alert to art and commerce. Altman brings all the elements into play, casting choreographers Lar Lubovitch and Robert Desrosiers as themselves and revealing the ups and downs of a dancer’s life without resorting to cheap tricks.
Take Ryan’s relationship with a chef, Josh (James Franco). Altman, working like a choreographer, uses movement to define character. Josh watches her play pool, Ryan watches him whip up an omelet. For those willing to observe the narrative with the same intensity as that of the dance, the rewards are many.
Everything comes together as Ryan and her dance partner, Domingo Rubio, perform a pas de deux on an outdoor stage. It’s one of the loveliest dance sequences ever put on film. A thunderstorm kicks up, causing panic backstage. But the dancers dance, the musicians play (a haunting My Funny Valentine) and the audience takes out umbrellas, unwilling to lose the moment. Altman, showing the ardor and assurance of a master, pulls us into his film with seductive power. You won’t want to miss a thing.