A dance movie that's closer to a documentary than a plotted drama is not
likely to rise to the commercial success of such predecessors as the charming
1997 Japanese import, "Shall We Dance" or the 1992 Aussie hit, "Strictly
Ballroom", but what it does have to offer is what may be the most accurate
view of what life is all about to a ballet dancer that's ever been recorded
It's a once in a lifetime piece of work, derived from the dedication of an
actress who has achieved a level of recognition as a horror film diva but who
has never quite put aside her dance training and discipline. More power to
her! After years of efforts, she teamed with an at-first reluctant director
Robert Altman to give voice and movement to the trials and triumphs of people
so dedicated to their art.
Altman has no trouble working with a loosely structured script and with a
camera that focuses on the varied expressions of his subject. His amazing
craft is in conveying non-intrusiveness while being in the right place
for his minimal-story purposes. Non fans will not, however, be won over by
the plotless format and ill defined characters who are more types than
individuals. The cast is mostly made up of real dancers/non-actors.
The framework is a ballet company based on the Joffrey of Chicago and
somewhat tyrannically managed by company director Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm
Macdonald). Mostly, he intrudes and demands, and generally roils his company
while the members of the corps work as well as they can around him. Which is
to say, quite admirably and intensely committed.
Certain dances and their dancers stand out with Ms. Campbell defined with a
semblance of a character that is more than her stagework. But it's her
stagework that is the biggest surprise. As someone who is established in an
entirely different sphere, as an actress I've always regarded as quite
beautiful and commanding though at times given to a certain pudginess, here
she is muscular and lithe. She stunningly demonstrates that the training of
her youth has not left her, that her discipline is alive.
We see much of the ensemble as they work out gymnastically, athletically
and elegantly in the career-long effort to perfect their mastery of
dance. Living for it. Convincing us as they are themselves convinced that
their art, for its fulfillment and its riches, demands the absolute extreme
of physical conditioning to control every limb and appendage.
But the life of a ballet dancer has its prosaic sides, as we see individual
members worrying about the effects of aging on their finely tuned bodies,
their continual exposure to accident and injury, their love lives, paychecks,
fears, and the creative ideas they need to protect against alteration and
compromise. They complain, whine and nag in an effort to maintain and/or
progress. The sweet contrast is to see that as people these artists are so
insecure but as performers so possessed of exquisite command.
The actual dance world that this glimpse represents is likely to be breathing
a sigh of relief that, at last, a movie that represents an accurate window
into their lives has been made. Altman tells it like it is, unmasked,
unglamorized, and worshipfully balancing all its aspects. It's a labor of
love for which he's likely to get kisses from every ballet dancer who has
lived, of both genders. He is likely to be idolized and held in reverence by
them and one can see this film playing to SRO crowds backstage at every dance
Its essential lack of drama is not likely to destine it for huge success on
strictly commercial circuits, but admiration is certainly the right feeling
to take out of the theatre by those who have any inkling of love for
dance. Kudos and flowers to Neve Campbell. Brava! As much for the
intricate elegance of her piece as for showing us the class she's made of.
~~ Jules Brenner