The director should stick with the mumbling, overlapping dialogue of his great films.
"Do you wanna dance?" Do you want a documentary or a drama? I can't figure out if Robert Altman in "The Company" wanted to do a documentary about Chicago's famed Joffrey Ballet Company, use Joffrey to show generic ballet business, or film a drama about love and injury in the highly romantic and sensual setting of a ballet company. I know he excelled at showing country music in "Nashville" and failed at depicting the fashion business in "Ready to Wear," so I can't rely on a perfect score to weigh the answers about making "The Company."
To be sure, the individual ballet performances are impressive but unsatisfactory if Altman has a purpose other than documenting. Does anyone believe that a popped Achilles' heel or losing a spot in the company because of a lack of talent are so exceptional in ballet as to be a pivotally dramatic? Does Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell), the company's artistic director, seem familiar as the stereotypical tyrant genius?
However, the moments of Altman's genius are still here:
Consider Neve Campbell as talented ballerina "Ry" (believable considering she trained in real life for a Canadian company) performing a duet outdoors while a storm threatens to shut down the show. She is calm, and Altman moves his camera from her to storm to audience to technicians to Antonelli in a collaborative montage that puts Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" opera sequence to shame. Unfortunately, Campbell does not create the enthusiastic response Moira Shearer did in "Red Shoes" (or even the Oscar-nominated Leslie Browne of "Turning Point").
Consider also Ry playing solitary pool while future lover Josh (James Franco) longingly watches her from behind the glass of a telephone booth. This is sexy without sex.
Consider finally Josh the chef making an omelet for Ry with close ups of him cutting the veggies rather than taking her clothes off. Altman cuts to dancers in red for a nice symbolic suggestion of connection.
These are scenes by the understating, allegorical Altman, where real people like McCabe and Mrs. Miller talk or don't talk in real language redolent with subtext. The director should stick with the mumbling, overlapping dialogue of his great films (recently, for example, the upstairs/downstairs banter of "Gosford Park") and forget the sweeping overview of abstractions like dancing and fashion. Havelock Ellis described the marriage of dance and drama: "Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself." Altman missed the "life" point.
I gained little insight into the art of dancing but gleaned a few moments of humanity off stage. That's where the director belongs.