Altman’s Love for Ballet Makes for a Serious Misstep

The Company , Robert Altman’s new ballet film, is a sharp reminder of how one can forget to be grateful for small blessings. In the years since the Joffrey company has given up its New York seasons, I had managed to forget just how trite and dated the basic repertory of this company is; how slick and empty the work of its artistic director, Gerald Arpino; how numbing the sight of all those earnest young dancers trying to make art out of straw-or do I mean bricks out of sows’ ears? Thank you, Robert Altman, for reminding us of what we’ve been spared-although a world that’s come up with Boris Eifman on an annual basis (and at the City Center, the very place where the Joffrey reigned long before it became the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago) is not a world we can really be thankful for.

What a bizarre movie this is! Unlike most ballet movies, whose plots are relentlessly clichéd and predictable (a Rocky in tights or tutu making it against all odds), The Company has no plot at all. Although the story is credited to Barbara Turner and Neve Campbell (who also stars and co-produces), there is no story; instead, there are slices of ballet life (the physical hardships, the pain, the anxiety, the camaraderie, the glory) and yards and yards of dancing, almost all of it bad. There are characters who are never characterized, situations that are never resolved. It’s often hard to tell who is who. Or why.

And then, of course, there is Altman’s famous darting camera, shooting through, around, above the dancers. Clearly, he’s in love with the world of ballet. And there’s Neve ( Scream ) Campbell herself, who’s bravely got herself back into shape years after abandoning ballet for acting. She’s worked hard, and is rewarded by looking no more or less adequate than her colleagues. It’s fortunate that this is the repertory she’s being seen in: In so much of what the Joffrey dances, it really doesn’t matter who does what as long as everyone just keeps going.

At least two of the works on view are new. The first is a lugubrious and pointless duet set to “My Funny Valentine” by the ubiquitous Lar Lubovitch. Campbell, equipped with a pushy ballet mother and a nice smile, is on her way up the company ladder and lands this plum role. The ballet itself is so forgettable that you’ve forgotten the beginning before you get to the end, but it does provide two bits of amusement. First, the way the great choreographer is greeted when he arrives at the studio: “Do you know how long this company has waited for a Lar Lubovitch ballet?” (My guess is that it didn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes after asking.)

Then there’s the premiere. It’s at an outdoor Chicago theater, and a storm is whipping up. The audience sits there hypnotized by the genius of Lubovitch and Campbell while lightning and thunder gather. Then, up umbrellas when the deluge strikes! But nobody thinks of leaving. How gratifying to see so many dedicated balletomanes in Chicago, a city that has famously withstood every attempt to make it available to ballet.

The other new work is by Robert Desrosiers, and it’s a hoot. It’s called The Blue Snake because it features a giant blue snake. Dancers cavort around in costumes designed to reduce them to special effects. Desrosiers, like Lubovitch, is shown in the Act of Creativity, and he can make fun of himself, so I don’t have to bother. This work is closer to Cirque du Soleil than to ballet, and it’s harmlessly silly. Poor Neve Campbell falls and hurts herself during the premiere, but hunk interest James Franco is on hand with flowers to cheer her up. (He’s some kind of chef in a fancy restaurant-and he’s creative, too; with shrimp, if I remember correctly.)

We get a second-rate ballet by Alwin Nikolais, a snatch of Laura Dean and three helpings of Arpino, whose endless parade of cheap, trendy works has held the Joffrey back for decades. He inherited the company from his friend and partner, Robert Joffrey-none of whose work, by the way, turns up in this film. There’s a moment from the company’s reconstruction of Saint-Léon’s La Vivandière pas de six -suddenly, real steps. But it’s over before any permanent damage can be done to the dominant aesthetic.

Why movie and dance critics are taking The Company seriously, I can’t imagine. Are they impressed by Altman’s reputation and naïve sincerity? By the fluid semi-documentary approach? Are they enjoying Malcolm McDowell’s fakey but enjoyable performance as Mr. A (for Antonelli), the egotistical and cowardly stand-in for Arpino? Or are they just relieved to see a ballet movie in which the heroine neither dies ( The Red Shoes ) nor has an overnight sensational success (most of the others)? The Company certainly does propose that dancers have a hard time of it. It’s true that Neve Campbell’s character has a largish, habitable place to live in, but it’s right next to the El, with trains roaring past. That’s hardship.

I enjoyed a couple of short scenes in which a steely senior ballerina stamps her pretty little toe-shoes and gets her way. And, of course, the moment when someone says, “Margot Fonteyn-she was a dame.” (It’s the only reference I can recall to any ballet name or subject not connected to the Joffrey. Talk about product endorsement!) And finally there’s Gerald Arpino’s remark in the press release: “Robert Altman really directs the way I choreograph.” That says it all.