Form follows content in Robert Altman’s latest film. As in the lives of the ballet troupe it portrays, it is the dance that takes center stage. The rest of the characters’ lives are glimpsed only around the edges. The result is intimate and moving, with dance numbers that are thrillingly filmed and backstage stories that are quietly observed.
This is not about nutcrackers and tutus. This is about people who make the ultimate commitment to art and, especially, it is about the art that they make. Altman is not just showing us dancers here. He is showing us himself.
Neve Campbell (the Scream series, “Party of Five”), a former ballet dancer, brought the idea to Altman (M*A*S*H, Gosford Park) and she stars as Ry, a member of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. As the opening credits begin, we hear the usual pre-performance announcements directing the audience to turn off their cell phones and reminding them that photography is prohibited. Then we see a stunning performance of a ballet called “Tensile Involvement,” a postmodern angular variation on a maypole dance (or maybe the ribbons on a toeshoe), with dancers interacting with stretched banners and the credits crossing the screen as though they were a part of the choreography.
The off-stage scenes have a loose, documentary feel but they are as meticulously observed and as carefully positioned as a ballerina en pointe. Ry’s two sets of parents — divorced mother and father and their new spouses — each bring flowers. When she gives them back for a moment so that she can talk with someone, the two couples wait a beat, look at each other, and then switch flowers, so each holds the ones they originally brought to her. Dancers battle the limits of the physical world as they try to transcend their own sometimes reluctant bodies as well as the pulls of gravity, and of time. Ry’s non-dancer boyfriend shows that he brings the same kind of care, artistry, and precision to his work that she does to hers.
The rehearsal scenes mix art and drama as the choreographers treat the primary dancers the way sculptors treat clay while the back-up dancers are “marking” the moves off to the side. Dancers matter-of-factly handle injuries, juggle other jobs, and borrow space for their sleeping bags on each other’s floors. The company director breezily shmoozes and evades with just about everyone, but when he accepts an award he is bracingly honest about the way he was treated as a young boy who loved dance.
One technical point worth noting is that this is the first film to use a new post-production process called Darbee Vision, which adds depth and vivid color to video, and which is ideally suited for photographing the dance numbers, which are, after all, center stage. They are lovely, even the weird and garish number that looks something like a Chinese New Year parade, and especially an exquisite pas de deux to a melancholy “My Funny Valentine,” danced outdoors in pouring rain.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language, locker-room nudity, and sexual references and situations. There are tense scenes and injuries. Characters drink and smoke.
Families who see this movie should talk about the commitment required for the dancers and the people who run the company.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Turning Point about two friends, one who stayed in the ballet company and never had a family and one who left to raise her children, who envy each other’s lives. They should also see the brilliant The Red Shoes.