Dancing the plot away

Robert Altman's mock ballet documentary sacrifices narrative for a touch of class.

Tom Horgen

As far as story goes, nothing really happens in “The Company.”

This new film from director Robert Altman is intended to be an exploration of the day-to-day mechanics of the prestigious Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and for the most part it is simply that. Altman, often hailed as an American master, is up to his old tricks here: He’s taking us into a world where glimpses of its inner workings are more important than character psychology and narrative.

Neve Campbell’s character, a talented dancer named Ry, is our protagonist, but like the film’s story there is no beginning, middle or end to her experience with the company. She moves up in rank and sparks a love affair with a local stud outside of the company, but those elements of the film never seem too important.

Rather, it’s the company that is pushed to the film’s forefront. There are fights between company members and budding relationships, both of which would be adequate building blocks for dramatic narrative, but here they are singular incidents that we never come back to; Altman simply moves on.

With no story arc in sight, the director appears to be attempting a kind of fictitious documentary. This is what an ultra-stylized doc with cameras drunk with the power of absolute ubiquity would feel like. The script, from a story co-written by Campbell, creates a plethora of situations for Altman to illustrate the overall mechanics of a ballet company. We’re there for the quirky management meetings, the grueling practices and, of course, the epic performances. But as mentioned before, he also takes us along on personal moments outside of the company, such as weddings and awards banquets and in some cases, we are allowed to follow the characters home to see their love affairs unravel.

But we observe only briefly and always from a distance – the camera never gets too close.

Beyond this stylized, documentary-like aesthetic, though, there is one facet of “The Company” that comes unexpected in a film so focused on presenting the true ballet.

Altman paints many of his characters as either self-serving egotists or bratty “yes” people in search of approval. There seems to be a strong smell of class division emanating from the company members. Malcolm MacDowell’s character, the absurdly domineering artistic director of the company, is the culmination of cute snobbery and, frighteningly, is based on the Joffrey’s real director.

Are these class politics also inherently a part of the ballet, a dance tradition with unquestionable high art status and upper-class distinction? Since Altman has constructed his film in a sort of documentary style, the answer, from him at least, would appear to be “yes.”