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THE COMPANY

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco
Director: Robert Altman
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: French; English closed-captioning
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Commentary, Making-of featurette, The Passion of Dance featurette, dance sequences, trailers
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: June 1, 2004

"The only thing a person can leave behind on this Earth is a light in themselves."

Film *** Ĺ

Ballet movies are a rarity in today's entertainment industry.  Aside from an occasional Nutcracker every generation or so, ballet on film has generally been relegated to infrequent PBS broadcasts of taped stage performances.  That is a pity because ballet offers so much more than the stereotypical image of wafer-thin ballerinas pirouetting about in tutus.  Perhaps The Company (2003) will help to alter some public perceptions about the world of ballet.

The Company was a pet project for Hollywood starlet Neve Campbell, best known for her starring role in the mock-horror Scream trilogy.  Campbell may seem an unusual actress to harbor any interest in ballet, but as a former classically-trained dancer herself (believe it or not), Campbell's passion for the performing arts is actually not so surprising.

Recruited (after much persistence on Campbell's part) to direct the film was iconoclastic director Robert Altman.  His flair for working with ensemble casts and his willingness to experiment in new genres made Altman an ideal director for this film, which would document the backstage and on-stage drama within the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.  As a result, The Company has an anachronistic feel to it, as might be expected with Altman in control, and seems equally a product of the 1970's as of the twenty-first century.

The Company is set in the world of modern contemporary dance, so viewers should set aside any images of Swan Lake ballerinas and nutcrackers.  With the enthusiastic participation of Chicago's real Joffrey Ballet, the film chronicles a "fictional" season of performances and rehearsals for this ballet troupe.  Eschewing a standard plot, The Company offers a loosely structured, documentary-like backdrop for some incredible dancing, mostly conceptual but occasionally classical, too.

There is no true central character in the film.  The closest thing to one is Loretta Ryan (or Ry, for short), a young member of the ballet troupe portrayed by Neve Campbell.  The Company occasionally skirts through her personal life, from her side job as a waitress at a Goth club to supplement her income (many ballet dancers live in poverty) to her budding romance with a young chef, Josh (James Franco).  More essential to the film's structure, however, is Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell), the wildly-exuberant artistic director modeled loosely after the Joffrey Ballet's real-life artistic director, Gerald Arpino.  Some of the dancers essentially portray themselves, too, as do noted choreographers Robert Desrosiers and Lars Lubovitch.

Much of the film's loose narrative proceeds in an unhurried manner, with flashes of the dancers' personal lives.  We follow various injuries, rehearsal arguments or artistic differences, and scenes of relaxation (a night out bowling, Christmas party comedy skits).  Many of these side stories offering little in the way of resolution or further development, which can understandably be frustrating to viewers expecting a straight-forward story or a concrete narrative structure.  However, the "story" for The Company, what little exists of it, is not central to the film.  The "loose ends" in the film represent not plot gaffes in the screenplay but rather a reflection of the flow of real life, that not everything is always tidily wrapped up at the end of the hour.

Many of the dances in The Company are quite exhilarating.  The film opens with Alwin Nikolais' Tensile Involvement, a visually exciting piece that incorporates colored ribbons into the choreography of its multiple performers.  Among the dances choreographed by Gerald Arpino himself are Light Rain, Trinity, and a classical Suite Saint-SaŽns piece performed at Chicago's Grant Park.  Other dances include Laura Dean's Creative Force, Davis Robertson's Strange Prisoners, and the thrilling ensemble salsa La VivandiŤre Pas de Six.  The definite showstopper among them all, however, is the mesmerizing MOMIX piece White Widow, an aerial ballet filled with arabesque spins and twirls.  It's very dreamy and is certainly a highlight in the film.

Campbell herself has two big dances in the film.  One occurs in the nocturnal Grant Park concert, a Lars Lubovitch-choreographed pas de deux to the Roger & Hart tune "My Funny Valentine."  The tune also serves as a repeating leitmotif for Ry's off-stage romance with Josh (the New York City Ballet, after the release of The Company, debuted its own extended 45-minute version of this dance with further choreography by Lubovitch).

Campbell's second shining moment is in a performance for The Blue Snake.  She has another duet and also a solo dance in this fantasy ballet by Desrosiers, the contemporary piece that serves as the finale of the film.  Throughout The Company, we catch glimpses of the Joffrey Ballet rehearsing this choreography (and even mocking the piece in a comic Christmas skit), but it is not until the end that we see the actual The Blue Snake.  Though somewhat shortened to fit within the film, this ballet still provides for some of The Company's most colorful and inventive costumes and images.

The Company is not concerned with a formulaic plot; it is instead about the essence and joy of dance.  In the real world, all these performers face long hours of hard work with little pay and routine indifference from mainstream American pop culture, not to mention the omnipresent spectre of a potentially career-ending injury.  Yet through all these obstacles, their love of performance, for the sake of the art itself, always perseveres.  Therein lies the true heart of The Company.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Neve Campbell performed all her dances throughout the film with a broken rib!

Video ****

The video quality on The Company looks awesome, with cinematography that literally glows at times.  Since the film was photographed using high-definition video, much of it (particularly the dance sequences) possesses an extraordinary degree of clarity with brilliant bursts of luminous colors.  Flesh tones are accurately produced, and dark scenes display a deep black level.  The overall richness of the color saturation in The Company is a perfect complement to the performances of the Joffrey Ballet.

Audio ****

Although The Company is a highly-visual film, the English 5.1 track is quite good and features a score by Van Dyke Parks and performances from the Kronos Quartet, too.  Also included are Angelo Badalamenti's "The World Spins," featured in the White Widow solo, Mark O'Connor's music from Appalachia Waltz, and excerpts from Camille Saint-SaŽns' Pas redoubliť, Op.86.  There is a soothing, at times hypnotic, quality to this music which enhances the surreal quality of the high-definition images.

While the audio track to The Company is not a bombastic one, it is a true 5.1 track and is  very effective at recreating the ambience of being in the midst of a live performance.

Features ***

There are a few interesting, if short, extras on this disc. First is a commentary with Robert Altman and Neve Campbell.  Robert Altman remains as sharp as ever and is extremely clear-headed for an octogenarian, while Neve Campbell sounds like an innocent youngster, complete with nervous little giggles every so often.  In fact, she exhumes such a bubbly cuteness that only the most cynical of viewers will not become utterly disarmed and enchanted by this commentary track.  It all makes for a highly entertaining, if unusual, listening experience.  Altman and Campbell discuss the structure of the Joffrey Ballet, including many of its individual dancers.  They also reveal how many of the anecdotes in the film were based on true experiences and that most of the dances were filmed entirely in only one or two takes, including all of Neve Campbell's dances!

Next is a Making-of featurette (7 min.) that offers short clips from the film and the production.  Members of the cast and crew, including Altman, Campbell, and Franco, appear periodically to talk about the film's premise.

The Passion of Dance (4 min.) is another short featurette in which Neve Campbell talks about how she trained for the film, working for four months, eight hours a day, to prepare for her dances.  The solid results can be seen on-screen, in which Campbell fits in quite well with the Joffrey dancers.  Altman also discusses the Joffrey dancers and their discipline and grace, which he highly praises.

Next are two dance-oriented extras.  First is an extended dance sequence Studio A / Show Off (2 min.), which shows the dancers practicing in the studio.  This is quite an elegant scene that displays the remarkable physical agility of these dancers, although the scene was apparently cut from the film.  Admittedly, the Joffrey dancers are the best thing about The Company, so viewers who wish to re-watch the performances outside of the film itself can opt for the 34-minute bonus feature that compiles all the dances together.  The dances are present back-to-back, from the first one to the very last one.

Lastly, there are a great many previews to look over on this DVD.  Included are trailers for The Company (and its soundtrack), Big Fish, Bon Voyage (a French romantic drama about World War II), The Cuckoo (another WWII drama), The Fog of War (a documentary about Robert McNamara), Masked and Anonymous (an amorphous film about civil rights...or a traveling circus or something...weird), Mona Lisa Smile, Respiro (a romantic Hispanic film), Something's Gotta Give, and The Triplets of Belleville (an acclaimed French animated film).

Summary:

This is a lovely performing arts film, pure and simple.  Viewers expecting a cohesive storyline may be disappointed, but those hoping for a splice-of-life look at the world of the Joffrey Ballet will enjoy this film.  The beautifully photographed dances are the highlights of The Company, and Neve Campbell easily demonstrates that she may have a vocation as a ballet dancer, if she so chooses.

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