- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

“The most common denominator I found was that most of them didn’t like the dances they had to do,” director Robert Altman is saying about the ballet dancers he filmed for “The Company,” which opens at area theaters today.

The director’s aim was to create a realistic, documentary-like simulation of the lives — in the studio and onstage — of a company of ballet dancers, represented in the film by Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet.

“I love those dancers, but it sets up a certain sadness in me,” Mr. Altman says. “I mean these girls start when they’re 8 years old, or 6, and by the time they’re 19 I can spot them on the street, they walk like a duck. They come to the realization that they’re not going to be the next Gelsey Kirkland; they look back, and they’ve spent their entire life preparing for it, so they can’t give it up, and by 32 or so they’re finished.”

It is understandable that the Joffrey repertoire as exemplified by the dances in “The Company” might inspire such feelings. In most important companies, dancers work with masterworks and feel part of a great art form.

This brings another dimension to their lives beyond dealing with injuries and dashed hopes, or nailing one more pirouette.

The view Mr. Altman chose was more limited.

“I would never be so arrogant as to think I am going to show you how dance should be. I had no input into the dance. What I show was a day in the life, a season in the life, of a dancer, what these people faced.”

The director chose, or, in his telling, was chosen, by Neve Campbell (star of three “Scream” movies) to make a film about the inner workings of a ballet company. She developed the idea with writer Barbara Turner and also dances and acts in the movie.

When the two women approached him, the director was not interested. “I didn’t even read their proposal. I said I wasn’t really conversant with dance,” he says. “I did a tap-dancing hoofer piece about 15 years ago called ‘Black and Blue.’”

Finally, Mr. Altman said, he decided to take a chance on Miss Campbell’s idea for a dance film: “Am I only going to deal with things that I’m comfortable with? So I just dove in and hit my head on the bottom of the pool.”

The film concludes with an extravagantly produced dance, “Blue Snake,” by Canadian choreographer Robert Desrosiers. Mr. Altman was shown a video of the dance (its publicity material says, “Recommended for those who think they don’t like watching dance”) and decided it was just what he wanted.

“We were advised that it’s not very good dancing. I’m not trying to do an anthology of great dances. I’m not a dance critic, nor do I know a hell of a lot about it. I’m just trying to show what these people had to face in their day-to-day life.

“Nothing was shot in actual performance. Everything we did was just for the cameras. Basically, we put them on stage and filmed only once with many cameras. We re-did a little bit of shooting but not a lot.”

Mr. Altman chose the actor Malcolm McDowell to play Alberto Antonelli, the fictional director of the company who in real life is Gerald Arpino.

“I didn’t imitate Gerry,” the director says, “but I wanted to show what that job was — half charlatan, half hustler, mostly fund-raiser.”

Miss Campbell had been working on the idea of showing a dance company at work for seven years and chose the Joffrey Ballet for its small size and eclectic repertoire. For the last two years she and the film’s writer embedded themselves with the dancers, observing their life and writing dialogue.

“I love dance. It was my entire childhood and my first career,” Miss Campbell says.

When she was only 15, she was in “Phantom of the Opera” for a couple of years and then appeared with small dance groups in Toronto, her hometown. A host of dance-related injuries prompted her to focus on an acting career. But her drive is such that at age 30, not having danced for 10 years, she trained for six months, eight hours a day, six days a week, to be able to take a leading role in the movie.

Getting in shape was hard enough, but just before she arrived for rehearsals with the company she cracked a rib, though she kept going.

She endured all this because dance is her passion, she says. “I had to give up some of my salary in order for the film to continue shooting, as Bob gave up some of his. I won’t make anything from this film, but that wasn’t what it was about for me.”

“I wanted to create a film that gave a realistic view of a dance company and the world of dance.”

“We’re fascinated by sports and athletes and what they endure,” Miss Campbell says, “but people have no idea what it takes for dancers. Ballet is about being graceful — your training starts with trying to look effortless, that’s what you’re working towards. I think it causes people not to appreciate what you’re enduring to be that graceful. Perhaps our movie will cause people to go see a dance company for the first time.”

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