Fri, Dec 17, 2004 - Page 17 News List

A peep behind the scenes at the ballet

Director Robert Altman filmed the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago to expose the lives, loves and art of top dancers

By Margolis Dahling  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The title of Robert Altman's likable film, The Company could be appropriate for any of his most important films, from McCabe and Mrs Miller to The Player to Kansas City. Many of these pictures invite us to eavesdrop on characters busily talking away among themselves, sounding like a group of nervous, supportive actors revving themselves up for a performance before the curtain rises.

The Company which follows a Chicago-based dance troupe through a few months of its season, with inevitable clashes and ego-bruising, is enjoyably lithe and droll yet somehow almost water-soluble; it seems to dissolve onscreen.

Altman and the screenwriter, Barbara Turner, have too astringent a perspective to cheapen the picture with thrashing soap opera; the few attempts to create competitive tension in the film dissipate even faster than other elements. After all of the opening and closing of doors in Gosford Park, he may have wanted material in which much less was at stake. Yet such choices mean that this picture lacks a center. It doesn't stick with you as a whole, though some moments glisten from the happiness the actors find in, if you'll pardon the expression, stretching.

After an opening number, the film, which uses the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, allows us to slip behind the scenes and hear the troupe's modestly abrasive gossip, particularly news about the recent flame-out in the love life of Ry (Neve Campbell). She ends up keeping, well, company with a chef, Josh (James Franco). He is nearly as consumed with his work as she is with hers and they have been cast for their traffic-stopping good looks. Franco, who sets his flame at brooding, is not as assured in the kitchen as Campbell is onstage.

Film Notes

Directed by: Robert Altman

Starring: Neve Campbell (Ry), Malcolm McDowell (Alberto Antonelli), James Franco (Josh) and members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

Running time: 112 minutes

Taiwan Release: today

Much of the movie, which opens today in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, is about life among the insiders, and the compact the dancers made with loneliness and sacrifice, a contrast to the loveliness of the choreography. One of the floating subplots catches a young dancer who bounces from floor to floor to flop on, and a funny bit of horsetrading secures him a more permanent berth.

But a community of performers drawn together to make art, and the way it consumes their days and nights, is a tough subject for a movie if the filmmaker isn't interested in jamming home big points. Like the shards of conversation we overhear, The Company exists as ambience. At times it has the found-art feel of a John Cage composition without the shaping rigor. But besides the waves of dialogue splashing against one another, this project has a welcome aural bonus that movies about dance often deny audiences -- the pounding of the dancers' feet on the floors, the noise of the expenditure of effort. It's a small touch, but gratifying and telling.

The Company has its allure, and a great deal of the film's appeal is supplied by the company's genteel, magnetic princeling of an artistic director, Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell). "A," as his victims call him, is so bewitchingly self-absorbed that he has no idea of the damage he leaves in his wake. McDowell, an actor mostly asked to show glaring, bristling hostility, brings so much gauzy charm to the blithely unapologetic and elegantly contradictory A that if this were a stage performance, he would get a standing ovation just for the distracted way he brings his hand up to the yield-sign-yellow scarf hanging from his neck.

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