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Raising the barre

Moviegoers who don't know a pas de deux from a do-si-do may be surprised at how accessible the ballet world becomes in Robert Altman's The Company. The material certainly isn't commercial, springing from an unexpected source and delivered without any cinematic frills _ the kind of movie Hollywood typically wouldn't spend much time or money producing. But that's probably exactly why Altman, still a grumpy lion at age 77, was drawn to the project.

Altman has made a career of doing things to get on movie marketers' nerves, and this may be his toughest sell yet. First, The Company is based on an idea proposed by Neve Campbell, whose screen resume (the Scream trilogy, Wild Things) would not seem capable of attracting Altman's attention. Secondly, the film features Campbell _ whose box office appeal is based on catering to teen sensibilities _ as a driven ballerina becoming a star, 42nd Street style. Campbell fans looking for a date flick may be severely disappointed.

But The Company works most of the time because Altman cuts through most backstage cliches and boldly embraces others, if only to propel a wispy plot. There is romance and melodrama but very little of each. The emphasis is on ballet itself and the dancers' regimen. The Company could be mistaken for a documentary if not for the occasional recognizable star faces. By the time Altman reaches his conclusion, an abrupt, open-ended one certain to frustrate many viewers, these dancers appear to be another strain of professional athlete, fine-tuning their bodies and teamwork.

Altman sets the tone with his opening credits, flashed over dancers creating shapes with bright ribbons suspended from the rafters and angled with precise footwork and hand positions. It's a mesmerizing sight, simply a camera and motion, a daring way to begin a movie and a template for much of what is to come.

The filmmaker utilizes the real-life Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, not as a backdrop to drama but as another co-star, one giant member of the ensemble casting Altman prefers. The group dynamic is foremost in Altman's vision with actors like Campbell and Malcolm McDowell as the company's autocratic artistic director blending in as much as the narrative allows.

Campbell does it best. To untrained eyes, there is little difference between her grace and precision and the dancers she joins. Campbell proposed the story for The Company to Altman, who hired his frequent collaborator Barbara Turner to build a screenplay around it. Part of the film's appeal is realizing new dimensions in an actor, and labors of love (which The Company is on several levels) are always affecting.

The plot outline is simple: one season in the Joffrey's life with a ballerina named Ry (Campbell) stepping to the forefront after a lead dancer is injured. Ry begins dating a chef named Josh (James Franco), but he doesn't distract her from trying to please Alberto Antonelli (McDowell in a fine although repetitive performance), a tough-love sort whose brusque manner can hurt or heal. A few familiar threads emerge _ meddling stage parents, a diva's narcissism _ but these are merely bridges between rehearsals and the lovely dance numbers they produce.

Early motion picture sequences featured the simplest movements, a kiss or a train pulling into a station, yet audiences were fascinated. In a way, Altman unearths that reaction for modern audiences whose movies generally move too much. There aren't any MTV-style edits in The Company and few medium or closeup shots during the dances and rehearsals. We're allowed to see the full range and evolution of synchronized motion in ensembles and pairings without anything that smacks of covering up bad footwork. This is raw, beautiful motion becoming art before our eyes. Only a patient rebel like Altman would consider making The Company this way.

My favorite sequence is Ry's starmaking performance with Domingo Rubio to My Funny Valentine, a recurring melody in the film. The importance of Ry's success is only suggested by that time, not emphasized to the point that we know it's inevitable. A rain shower at this outdoor performance adds a hint of danger, although nobody speaks of the risk of slipping and Andrew Dunn's unobtrusive camera doesn't show puddles developing onstage. We just know. The audience, seen mostly from the back, responds by opening umbrellas, in effect framing a masterpiece. The performance is superb and the manner in which it is depicted makes me wonder if Altman captured a quiet battle between humans and nature purely by accident.

Such simple revelations are what Altman's career has been about. We can almost feel him smiling behind the camera when they occur. The Company is a low-key extension of the creative process he has employed since M+A+S+H+, sorting through situations seeming mundane, even dull on the surface to locate some beauty underneath. This movie isn't for everyone, and Altman always likes it that way.

The Company

Grade: B+

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, Susie Cusack, Barbara Robertson, Marilyn Dodds Frank, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago

Screenplay: Barbara Turner

Rating: PG-13; profanity, sexual situations

Running time: 112 min.