At a great dance performance, it's easy to feel that the dancers are as close as you're going to get to seeing gods and goddesses prance about the earth. More than gymnasts, basketball wizards, or porn stars (a comparison more apt than it sounds, given that every dimple and contortion of their flesh is on display), dancers don't just occupy their bodies completely. They are occupied by them, and thus they appear to leap the limits of consciousness; they turn sensuality into a human sculpture of grace. The beauty, and also the wry prank, of Robert Altman's The Company is that by deliberately underplaying, even throwing away, anything that would smack of drama, the movie captures, and exults in, the enigmatic drama of a dancer's existence: the life of the body transformed into art, then back into life again. The movie is fiction that feels like a Zen documentary, and it's unique in the Altman canon. Watching it, I felt by turns engrossed, detached, dazzled, bored, curious, enlightened, and moved.
Early on, Neve Campbell, as Ry (short for Ryan), a promising member of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, steps into a rehearsal to replace a willowy, swanlike dancer who can no longer conceal her neck spasms. It's an ''All About Eve'' situation, with the gifted young performer taking over for an established star. Yet if you blink a few scenes later, you'll miss the injured dancer's head toss of dismay as she realizes that she'll have to sit the performance out. The Sturm und Drang starts, and ends, there.
The concert itself is held at night, on a stage in the middle of Chicago's Grant Park, and the moment before Ry comes out to perform, there's a rumble of thunder. The clouds erupt, rain pours onto the audience, and the Japanese lanterns that have been strung along the aisles bob madly in the Chicago wind. Ah, we think, the irony -- Ry's big moment capsized by a storm. Except that the dance, an amorous tangle choreographed to ''My Funny Valentine,'' goes off without a hitch and becomes even more memorable due to the backdrop of tumultuous weather. This, ''The Company'' says, is the odyssey of a dancer, with each setback and opportunity flowing into the next.
Altman makes one concession to showbiz, and it's a delectable one. As Mr. Antonelli, the artistic director of the company, Malcolm McDowell is theatrical and flamboyant so that his ''babies'' (i.e., the dancers) don't have to be. In his scarves and bristle coif of white hair, ''Mr. A'' is a politician posing as an aesthete. Virtually everything that comes out of his mouth is flattery (he uses the word ''Fantastic!'' as if it were a form of massage), but the key to reading him is to separate the fake compliments from the genuine. He's an elegant tribute to the days when highbrows had fire in their bellies. McDowell is a pleasure to watch, but the key to ''The Company'' is the quiet, focused rapture of Neve Campbell, who formally trained in ballet and performed all of her on-screen dances. The tranquil delight she takes in her body becomes its own eloquent form of acting.