Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Battle Of The Year 3-D waltzing into theaters, we look back on other movies about dancers.

The Company (2003)

The penultimate film from Robert Altman is a highly unusual one, even by the form-busting standards of his career. The master set aside several of the basic elements of his working method, but only in order to bring out an even deeper commitment to his own idiosyncratic manner of conducting business. The “company” of the title is Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, and an overwhelming majority of The Company consists of watching rehearsals and completed dance performances by the group.


Aside from a few films that were retrofitted from theatrical performances (Secret Honor; Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), Altman never made a documentary, and The Company is certainly doesn’t qualify. However, the largely unscripted, observational business featuring current members of the actual Joffrey Ballet dance company brings this film closer than any other in Altman’s filmography. In a side-by-side comparison, portions of The Company look and sound strikingly similar to direct-cinema guru Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 film Ballet, not to mention his later examination of the Paris Opera Ballet, 2009’s La Danse.

Another element that makes this an odd duck among Altman’s work is its relative lack of ensemble work. The large celebrity cast, all bobbing and weaving through scenes with their overlapping voices being mixed on multi-channel stereo, has always been the Altman trademark. In The Company, dancers do form skeins of activity during rehearsals, including threaded sonic information. But for the most part there is one point of focus, that being Neve Campbell. She plays an up-and-coming dancer in the group, and as far as The Company is concerned, she really is the sole consistent point of identification. (The fact that she’s the only star playing a dancer—she also co-produced—directs our attention as much as any of Altman’s formal maneuvers.)

Apart from Campbell’s narrative role (and her off-hours life with chef-boyfriend James Franco), The Company does behave like a documentary. “The Company” is about teamwork and anonymity, the cooperation of interchangeable parts. This is fascinating because, in some regard, this represents only half of the Altman ethos. His films were always about keeping dozens of balls in the air, everyone working together for a common goal. But by all accounts (including Altman’s own), they were less like platoons and more like communes. Identities were not subsumed within the greater whole. Freaks came together and hashed things out (often, um, literally), with Altman as the gentle hand guiding a gaggle of prima donnas. Such an effort would seem to be exhausting, so maybe The Company represents late-life wish fulfillment, a vision of what happens when everyone just does what you ask and does it right, even in the pouring rain.

Availability: A DVD version is available for purchase or rental, and a digital version is available from iTunes and Amazon Instant.