Sometimes it seems as though Robert Altman makes every movie that comes into his mind. A picture about the health food industry? Jazz? Haute couture? Weddings? Sure, let’s do it. And with the “parachuting” method that he worked out almost thirty years ago in Nashville—whereby you drop down into a subculture, gather up a lot of piquant detail, mix actual members of that world with actors, weave together a few dozen narrative threads involving these people, and get out before your curiosity is exhausted—such films must seem to him easy to make. You don’t have to develop characters; with so many, you don’t have time. Nor do you really need a plot. Incident will suffice. Some of these movies, particularly those that have a bit of plot (Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park), turn out wonderfully, and others don’t (H.E.A.L.T.H., A Wedding, Ready to Wear), but one gets the feeling that Altman doesn’t mind much one way or the other. He’s seventy-nine and famous. He gets stars to work for him for scale. He’s on his third wife, his sixth child, his thirty-seventh movie. God bless him!
His newest film, The Company—in which (it had to happen) the subculture is ballet—is one of the non-hits. Many critics either panned it or made excuses. Five days after it opened, it was playing at only one theater in Manhattan. But like other Altman movies, it shows relaxation, sophistication, and this makes it a rare addition to the shelf of ballet films. The Red Shoes, The Turning Point, Center Stage—most ballet movies are assembled from a limited set of widely held assumptions about the profession. To wit: Ballet dancers are obsessed, and their lives are anguish. They are anorexic; their feet bleed; they don’t have time to date. They have frightening “ballet mothers” who push them mercilessly and prevent them from eating dessert. After years of back-breaking work, they have only a slim chance of getting into a major troupe. If they do join such a company, they will find themselves surrounded by bitter homosexuals and imperious, poodle-toting prima ballerinas, who try to bar them from getting ahead.
Occasionally, though, a prima ballerina may get injured, in which case our little ingenue may be thrown on at the last minute, have a succès fou, and become a prima herself, overnight. Should that happen, she can look forward to a short professional life—still dateless, dessertless—after which she is thrown on the trash pile, if her neurotic obsession with dance has not already brought her to more decisive harm, such as getting run over by a train, which is what happens to Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. In any case, the crucial point is the contrast between the ethereal, chiffon-wafting beauty of ballet and the brutal realities that underlie it.
In its romantic versions, such as The Red Shoes, this so-called “bloody toeshoes” trope is a sentimental outpost of Platonism. In its more iconoclastic forms, such as Center Stage, it is a last refuge of Freudianism. (“You think this looks pretty? Well, wait till I show you what’s underneath.”) The fact is that most young ballet dancers are no more obsessive, work no harder, and have no less chance of being hired by world-class companies than other young people training for a career in the classical performing arts. Nor do most modern ballets look ethereal; they are often crotchy affairs dressed in spandex and set to rock music. But in general, people don’t know about ballet from seeing it. (A 1997 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, in conjunction with the US Census Bureau, found that only about 6 percent of the population had seen at least one ballet, including The Nutcracker, in the preceding twelve months.) People know about ballet from the movies.
To judge from what the makers of The Company have said to the press, they believe the bloody toeshoes story. The idea for the movie came from Neve Campbell, an actress who studied in her youth to be a ballet dancer but was eventually sidelined by injuries and instead became a star of murder movies (Scream, Scream 2, Scream 3). Campbell told the Times that what she aimed for in The Company was to dramatize the dichotomy, in ballet, “between the intenseness and the pain and what you see onstage—which is someone pretending to be a butterfly.” Once Altman started looking at the script, he too, Campbell says, was primarily interested in that dichotomy:
The first time Bob went to a class, he called and he was, like, “Neve! The dancers, they pick their leotards out of their butt all the time! And they’ve got holes in their tights and their feet are so bloody. I love that stuff!”
Later, in his publicity appearances for the finished movie, Altman stressed the dark/light business. Talking to Kurt Andersen on WNYC’s Studio 360, he said that, in entering the world of ballet, he wanted to “turn over rocks, and see if there were worms and maggots.” He found them, he claimed. Dancer’s lives are hell, he writes in the movie’s production notes:
Here are world-class artists who, for the most part, are poorly paid and live hand to mouth…. Their daily reality includes bloody feet, bludgeoned ambitions, and the work itself—in all its demanding beauty.
So the old formula was firmly fixed in the minds of the people who created the movie. Strange to say, however, it’s not there in the movie. What The Company shows us is basically a season in the life of a ballet company, with special emphasis on one dancer, named Ry, who is played by Campbell. Ry is not an innocent little teenager. (Campbell is thirty, and that’s how old she looks.) Nor does she have an eating disorder, nor do her feet bleed, nor does she seem notably obsessed. She works part-time as a cocktail waitress—not what your average self-immolating ballet dancer would do—and maybe that’s to pay the rent on her luxurious apartment, with what one reviewer estimated was a twenty-five-thousand-dollar bathroom. She’s not lonely, either. As the movie begins, she has just been dumped by her boyfriend, a fellow dancer. (So you don’t have to be Mikhail Baryshnikov to be heterosexual in this ballet company—a note of realism. According to a choreographer I recently spoke to, about half of male ballet dancers are now straight.) Quite soon, she acquires a new man, a chef named Josh, who looks like James Dean (the actor, James Franco, actually starred in the TV biopic James Dean) and treats her like a princess—and he can cook.
Ry’s life does contain some of the standard-issue props. She has a mother who urges her to demand better roles, but we see this lady only in passing, and since, while she is delivering her career advice, she is also rooting around in Ry’s kitchen to find a drink, which she appears to need badly, she doesn’t quite measure up as a ballet mother. In another nod to the canonical plot, Ry is given an important role when another dancer is injured, but she was understudying that role already, and though she has a success in the ballet, this happens right away, and she doesn’t become famous overnight. At the end, she’s in another ballet, not as the star. In mid-performance, she falls and is injured, whereupon the woman she replaced in the earlier ballet replaces her. In the final shots, we see her standing in the wings, looking sad, with her arm in a sling, but then Josh arrives, bearing flowers, and she perks up. That’s the plot, such as it is. No splendeurs et misères, no dichotomy.
Why not, if this is what the filmmakers had in mind? I can make a few guesses. First, the fact that Campbell, in her youth, worked in the real world of ballet—she studied at Canada’s National Ballet School, in Toronto—must have had an effect. Whatever she thinks she thinks about the pain and the butterfly, she knows better. Second, once she persuaded a production company to take on this film, she hired a scriptwriter, Barbara Turner (Pollock), who then spent a year and a half observing and interviewing the members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. That was part of Campbell’s plan. While other ballet movies might be done by actors, The Company was going to show us real ballet dancers. Only three featured roles, those of Ry, Josh, and the company director, are taken by actors. Most of the rest of the people in the film are members of the Joffrey, doing what they normally do. “There are scenes that I constructed, that I wrote,” Turner said to the Times, “but it’s essentially just a year with these dancers.” They told her their stories—what they didn’t tell her, she saw—and she put it all into the script.
A third factor is, of course, Altman. Campbell and Turner wanted him from the start; indeed, they tailored the scenario to his method, made it a mosaic. And once they got him, he brought with him his sensibility—his skepticism, his wryness, his feel for the oddball detail, all of which seems to have undermined whatever romantic notions he had about the agony and the ecstasy of being a ballet dancer. Also, he had a practical difficulty in that, with few exceptions, his cast did not know how to act. “I cannot take 30 ballet dancers and make them actors,” he told an interviewer as the film was being made. “That’s why I’m not giving anybody any lines.” The dancers do speak, but most of their dialogue is improvised, and what can non-actors improvise about? Their actual lives.
Accordingly, The Company has a high reality quotient. While Ry and her career and her romance may be sitting there in the middle of it—Campbell did this film for herself (and went back to ballet class for two years to be able to dance in it)—the real pleasure of the movie lies not in its “story,” but in its small, marginal, inner-company incidents, which are very true to the profession. In ballet classes there is an unwritten rule that the most advanced dancers work at the front of the class, with the less advanced, in descending ranks, behind them. There is no list of who stands where; everyone just knows. And in The Company there is a modest little scene where a prominent dancer walks into class late, goes to what he knows is his place at the barre, and just looks at the young man who has presumed, in his absence, to stand there. The latter instantly vacates the spot.
In ballet there is also what I will call senior-woman syndrome, whereby a dancer who has spent many years in a company may come to “own” certain roles, to the despair of the rehearsal directors, who feel that they, not she, should determine how the steps will be done. In The Company there is an episode in which a ballet master—Mark Goldweber, who is an actual Joffrey ballet master and was formerly one of the company’s most appealing dancers—decides, in rehearsal, to restore to a ballet a step that has been eroded over the years. The star of this ballet is the company’s senior woman (played by Deborah Dawn, who is in fact the Joffrey’s senior woman). So Goldweber says to Dawn that her partner is now going to bring her down from a lift on a slightly different set of counts: “See if you can do it in on six-two-three.” Dawn gives him a look of frank hostility and says, “I’ve been doing this ballet for over ten years, and obviously he [the artistic director] likes the way I do it, so I think the counts I have been doing are—sufficient.” So much for Goldweber’s bright idea.
Finally, there is a wonderful scene in which a choreographer, Robert Desrosiers, tries to present to the company’s artistic director, Alberto Antonelli, an idea for a new ballet, to be called The Blue Snake. The entire back of the stage, he says excitedly, will be taken up by the figure of a giant blue snake. “How many dancers?” snaps Antonelli. Twenty, Desrosiers answers. “Could we do with ten?” Antonelli demands. Desrosiers says no. Then could we cut the snake’s tail off? Antonelli asks. There are three things to remember in making a ballet for the Joffrey, he says: “Budget, budget, and budget.” Money, counts, placement at the barre: these are matters one doesn’t often hear about in ballet movies. It is not just for their accuracy that I praise The Company for including them. The accuracy makes the film more interesting. One thing about the real: it seems real. It has the strange, nubbly, tractive feel of reality. And so it snags us, pulls us in.
But the movie’s greatest stroke of realism is its dance sequences. Ten different ballets are shown, in excerpts. Sometimes they are filmed for purely visual effect (for example, from above), or for dramatic effect (for example, from mid-audience, with people’s heads poking up into the shot). But very often the filming is done from inside the dance. Andrew Dunn, the cinematographer (Gosford Park), must have set up his cameras right in the middle of the stage, with the company running around him. As a result, we get very close to the action. We see the face of a woman at the top of a lift: “How much longer?” her face says. In a piece (Alwin Nikolais’s Tensile Involvement) that involves a big cat’s cradle of ribbons, we watch the dancers as they manage to grab just the right ribbon, in just the right place, and, at the end, exit without banging into the wings. Above all, we see movement, physical effort: every bend of the waist, with the costume fabric wrinkling; every lift of the leg, with the muscles quivering.
This is not at all the usual way to film dance—or the best way, if what you’re interested in is the dance. But what Altman and Dunn were interested in was the dancers, their work, and that is what is revealed here, more clearly than I have ever seen it before on screen. Many times, too, Altman will show us, in performance, a dance passage that we recognize from a prior rehearsal scene, and this zoom from the private to the public has a great poignance. What before was life is now art, or trying to be. More than any talk about heroic young artists living hand to mouth, these performance sequences speak for the dignity of dancers. And that argument carries over into the offstage scenes. The dancers are shown as regular, intelligent people. They joke; they make fun of their boss; they lobby for better casting. They also have fun—go bowling, play pool. You didn’t see Moira Shearer doing that. Not incidentally, most of them look to be in their middle to late twenties. Like Ry, they are not ingenues.
Altman, being who he is, could not resist having a little sarcastic fun, but most of that is concentrated on management, notably Antonelli, who is played by Malcolm McDowell. After his thrilling start (If…, A Clockwork Orange), McDowell went on to what seemed an unworthy career. For most of the last twenty years, he has been expending his brilliant malice in second- rate pictures. Here he shines it up again, and gives a hilarious portrayal of the irascible ballet director. Antonelli cannot enter a room without issuing commands. The air seems to crackle around him; dancers flee at his approach. Yet most of what he is doing is simply performing—the role of ballet director. At one point, he walks into a rehearsal, and since nothing is happening yet, he has nothing to give orders about. He looks around wrathfully, spies a row of chairs against the wall—there is almost always a row of chairs against the wall in a ballet studio—and screams at his assistant to remove them. No doubt he will need them shortly, and scream for them to be brought in again.
It’s a broad sketch, but not too broad. There are ballet directors like this, notably Gerald Arpino, the longtime artistic director of the Joffrey. As Kristin Hohenadel, reporting from Chicago, wrote in the Times, Arpino
is as famous here for his rotating hairpieces, powerful cologne and habitual use of the third person (as in, “Arpino has always believed that dancers are athletes”) as he is for his iron-fisted directing style.
Once the film was completed, Arpino told an interviewer from Pointe magazine that he would have liked very much to play Antonelli, but that Altman, disappointingly, had insisted on McDowell: “I was the only one not allowed to be in the film. He was very adamant. I was not even to have a cameo.” But, he added, McDowell did pretty well: “He captured ‘the spirit of Arpino.’” Apart from that spirit-capture, the funniest thing in the movie is the choreographer Desrosiers, sporting a pony tail that looks like road kill and innocently explaining to the dancers the metaphysical significance of their roles in The Blue Snake. The zebras in the ballet are black and white, he says, in order to represent “the dualism of the world we live in.” This character is played by the actual Robert Desrosiers, who actually did choreograph a ballet called The Blue Snake, for the National Ballet of Canada, in the Eighties. Watching the film, one doesn’t know whether Desrosiers realized that he was making fun of himself, and this creates a wavering tone—something we are used to in Altman movies.
The question of tone becomes more pressing at the end of the movie, which shows the Joffrey première of The Blue Snake. In fact, the real Joffrey Ballet has never performed The Blue Snake, but according to Harriet Ross, the company’s artistic manager, Neve Campbell saw this piece, and loved it, when she was young, and she wanted it in her movie. Altman liked it too, Ross added, because it shows the dancers, as creatures of the forest, being devoured by the big blue snake: “Bob found it to be a metaphor for dance. He feels there’s something devouring about our art.” Did he also realize that The Blue Snake, at least on film (I haven’t seen it live), is ridiculous? Not only does it have a stage-spanning, smoke-belching blue snake that eats the performers; it also has a stage-spanning, smoke-belching Asian god-giant who eats the performers—among whom, incidentally, are not just zebras, but monkeys, dancing pineapples, and what appear to be blue Gila monsters, with yellow spikes. The whole thing looks like a high-budget version of a children’s backyard theatrical. At the same time, you know that it is trying to say something deep, and this makes it even funnier. The audience I sat with laughed out loud. So must Altman have done when he first saw (presumably on tape) this ballet that Campbell remembered so fondly. But he may also have thought that, with all those creatures and colors, it would make a lively finale for his film.
When The Blue Snake had its stage première in 1985, the Toronto reviewer Selma Odom jokingly suggested that it be remade as a music video. Now it has been, and it’s sort of fun. The same can be said of some of the other dances in the movie. The Company treats the Joffrey as a modal ballet company. It is not. Its contemporary repertory, at least, has a very distinct profile: youth-oriented, splashy, and junky. These characteristics are especially prominent in the ballets of Arpino, which dominate the programming. They are the penny candy of the art. But in the film, because they are shot the way they are, and only in short snatches, they don’t look bad. Arpino too might think about music videos.
It was lazy of Altman to end his film with Desrosiers’s extravaganza, but The Company is a lazy movie all around. There are numerous shaggy-dog episodes. There are repetitions. (Not just two, but three, dancers are injured.) There are inconsistencies. (Though it is clearly specified that Antonelli is Italian-American, nobody said anything to McDowell about his English accent.) I don’t think Altman’s engagement with the subject was very deep. But it was deep enough, and Turner’s research was thorough enough, to produce a film drama that, for the first time in my experience, shows ballet dancers not as wounded birds, but as normal, serious working people.