The thing about Malcolm McDowell is his charisma that permeates without overpowering. Even in the small dollops of screen time afforded him in Robert Altmans THE COMPANY, he is undoubtedly the star, the fixed point about which the film revolves. And rightly so. He plays Aberto Antonelli, the artistic director of the eponymous company, The Chicago Joffrey Ballet, a dance troupe that, like any other artistic gathering, perpetually teeters between the sublime and the ridiculous. The irony here is that the film is co-written and co-produced by Neve Campbell who gets top billing. More about her later.
The film tracks a year in the life of the company, from the first artistic proposal of a piece called Blue Snake, though to its premiere, which forms the film’s finale. It’s all seen though the eyes of Ry (Campbell), an up-and-coming member of the troupe who may or may not be on the verge of a professional breakthrough. She’s a featured performer, but it’s just enough to keep her waitressing on the side in order to make ends meet. Her story line is just one of the usual complicated skein of plots that are Altman’s trademark and which he navigates cinematically in such a way that it all falls together seemingly effortlessly. The result has a documentary feel, but one where the camera is always in the right place, telling us just enough, capturing the perfect moment that demonstrates why this group of people are so slavishly devoted to dance.
Those moments are exquisite. There’s a small one of a woman on Antonelli’s staff (an achingly understated Barbara Robertson) working the ballet bar with ferocious intensity and then sneaking wistfully away when the company’s class begins. Is she an ex-dancer or a wanna-be? It doesn’t matter. Dance has her in its irresistible grasp. There’s a large one, when a dancer’s tendon snaps audibly as she stands en pointe. Life stops for everyone there, stunned into a silence that speaks of that dancer’s life changing perhaps forever. Altman shoots from above, showing her sitting more in shock that pain, the others forming a distant circle around her. As for the finale, what were ludicrous costumes and senseless moves in the rehearsal hall burst forth on the stage with pure magic, the only weak moment being during a pas de deux of dancer and balloon where Altman’s camera doesn’t keep the balloon in frame.
If only Ry were as compelling as any of that. She has no detectable emotional inner life, though we see her weeping for a lost love and playing carefully neutral with her parents and their new significant others. Even a new romance with trendy chef James Franco merely marks the time before Malcolm re-appears and we can get on with the show. Dancing nimbly amid budgets and temperament, he’s a benevolent dictator given to flowing scarves and graceful exits, eminently watchable even amid the roiling mix of performers crowding the screen. Yet MacDowell tempers the arrogance necessary for the job. Even Antonell’is most cutting remark to a dancer is never personal, but strictly a signpost to artistic excellence.
THE COMPANY is a celebration of dance par excellence not only for people who adore that art form, but also for those who heretofore have been immune to its charms. That alchemy that takes ego and commerce, passion and pain, and transmutes it into pure poetry, where human bodies become the stuff that dreams are made on, slipping the bonds of gravity and bone to become pure fluid spirit.