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…
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