This is a sweeping statement, but I make it with care. Audiences have never seen the dance world rendered on stage and off, via the film medium, with such objectivity and grace. Altman shows us how real companies behave, as organizations and as collected and fallible human beings, all the while maintaining a tender regard, even adoration for the art form. Nearly entire ballets, filmed correctly so that we can see whole bodies and staging rather than subtitled snippets of movement, are woven through a relatively plot-less tale. Thus Altman shows us more clearly than any dramatic dialogue or character development might, why it is that people choose to dance, why artists embrace this way of working, why administration and fund-raisers devote themselves to mounting these projects.
No one has to tell the audience this work is beautiful: they can see it. The film contains no history lesson: we either recognize the included ballets or we don’t, proving the point that we need not be scholars to understand dancing. Nor in this film is dance choreography made up of frail, effeminate variations on the ballet-blanc theme. This is an important point for American viewers who tend to that prejudice. “Don’t look so pretty! You know I hate pretty!” company director Mr. A., (Malcolm McDowell), enjoins the dancers in rehearsal. There is one classical variation, danced brilliantly by both Julie Kepley and Suzanne Lopez; the rest of the film’s repertory is contemporary.
Altman’s signature style has been since his early films, notably Mash (1970) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), to blur the distinctions between major and minor characters, knocking out the notion of hero. In the beginning of his career, he achieved this goal with sound, covering conversations between high profile actors with the noise of other characters talking. For this film, really about a company, and not a hero, Altman fogs our focus upon the lead character with limited screen time and a reluctance to center the camera on her. Several other dancers are developed as well as is Ry (Neve Campbell), and she often dances on the periphery of the frame. For those who enjoy digging in the dirt, the film offers a brief nod to some of the work-a-day tragedies of life in dance. These include poverty (a dozen or more of the dancers shack together in a single apartment – some sleep on the floor – while Ry is able to maintain a studio apartment solo (under Chicago’s el tracks) only by virtue of a second job; injuries (twice we see a principal forced by injury to sacrifice a part to a corps dancer, and a consequent status change); AIDS (“Such a terrible disease! So many losses!” Mr. A exclaims); grueling rehearsal hours (some dancers try an “energy” pill; one dancer is cut two days before performance); eccentric choreographers (hilariously spoofed at the Christmas roast); and the plight of aging dancers – it’s more than just physical –who have developed artistry over time, and are beyond meekly taking direction from ballet masters. Mr. A as a character is company director stuff and not much more: authoritarian, whimsical, headstrong, opinionated, brusque, evasive but vastly appreciative of dance and dancers.
Still, such diversions have really nothing to do with ballet. For some audiences, unfortunately not those most likely to be attracted to this film, the discovery may be an education. All of these virtues, Altman’s visionary directorship, formally integrated cinematography, innovative plotting and characterization would nevertheless collapse without a good cast. Unlike most ballet films – one winces at the memory of Ann Bancroft taking class with Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Turning Point (1977) – this one is peopled with real dancers. Neve Campbell is a retired corps member of Canada’s National Ballet, and the supporting characters are drawn from the ranks of The Joffrey (Maia Wilkins, Domingo Rubio, John Gluckman, for example) with whose full cooperation this film was made. Choreographer Lars Lubovich plays himself, as does Robert Desrosiers.
If one element of the movie puzzles, it is the inclusion of the absurd, over- conceived prop piece, Blue Snake, now in its second incarnation in film. If you are curious – and I strongly encourage you not to be – check out the 1989 documentary, Blue Snake, that gushingly follows choreographer Desrosiers through the creation and staging of this acrobatic farce. Perhaps the fact that there are two films of such a innane piece demonstrates that only a movie maker has the budget to waste on dancing dinosaurs. One hates to think that Altman is pandering to the popcorn-munching crowd here, but I find myself almost forced to think it. Poor as it is, audiences and critics may applaud it anyway, and maybe that’s the joke: that neither critics, nor audiences, nor dance practitioners can often see the difference between what should be saved, what scrapped. Sad to say, it is a joke that Altman himself may not be in on. That Blue Snake should be a failure, however, is really no surprise. The truth is: the vast majority of new choreographies fail within a few years of their inception, if not on the same night. Failure is an occupational and artistic hazard of working in the dance field. We accept it because the opportunities for true achievement are real, as we see in this film.