Written on 27 October 2004, this is one of my favorite pieces so far, not so much because I loved the movie—although I did—but because I felt like I was discovering the movie as I wrote about it. I only wish I could have see this on the big screen.
The Company starts with the opening dance of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s season, and ends as curtains go down on the season’s big finale, an overly bombastic, special-effects-drenched number (“Blue Snake”) that’s sure to please—and is intended only to please—the Ballet’s board members out in the suburbs.
In between is a glorious examination of a working company’s daily triumphs and tribulations. Neve Campbell is ostensibly the protagonist, but she’s just an organ in the company’s body. Just as in Nashville, Short Cuts, and Cookie’s Fortune, Robert Altman is interested in the workings of a broader community, not just one individual narrative. Campbell’s character is valuable because she’s a symbol of all of the dancers. They all train mercilessly, work two jobs to pay rent, massage their feet, argue over finer points of choreography, and worry that the next landing might go awry… and end a career. The dances pulse with life because the dancers live with dance—it consumes them so much that even their Christmas parties and barhopping ventures are accompanied by dancers…
The filmed dances are dazzling. Altman, used to dealing with so many characters and subplots, knows how to shoot space better than any living director. The cuts are always graceful, the zoom-ins are always useful, and he weaves fluidly our vantage points so that we have a better vision of the dances than the audiences. We see the performances from the perspective of the audience, but also from above, from behind the curtains, from the dancers nervously waiting for their entrances, and from the lighting director’s booth. As a result, we peer so closely into each dance that we’ve entered it. Editing rhythmically between these points-of-view, Altman shows us steps and facial flushes, complicated patterns, and heartstopping solos in such an un-intrusive way that—despite all the movement both in front of and behind the camera—we never lose our sense of where the dancers are spatially on stage nor in relation to one another.
The Company’s sound quality is astonishing—when a dancer snaps her tendon, we hear it just barely over her landing, and the hush afterward resonates through the onlookers. Conversations overlap, so that joyful yelps and whispered flirtations blur together, but the necessary, propulsive thrust of each conversation gets heard above the din. Even the movie’s structure, which seems initially too casual, is just right. We’re always entering scenes in the middle of conversations, and leaving just when practice is getting involved, but it’s all of a piece. You’ve entered the Joffrey’s world, like a cub reporter, and you glean only as much as you’re willing to pay attention to.
Despite the naturalistic camera movement and relaxed pace, The Company is as deeply romantic and yearning as a jazz ballad. The camera is composed so that every frame—from early-morning practices to a sexy, sorrowful pas de deux surrounded by rain and thunder—is revealing and delicate. The glow—from the floorboards and the actors’ skins, from the footlights to the sunlit practice spaces—is so luminescent that you’d never know the movie was shot on digital video. Playful but tough, intimate but not brittle, The Company shows us a gorgeous world and graciously lets us watch it run.