Ballet fans are right to be suspicious about projects in which non-professionals are inserted into dance films in the hope of making them more palatable to a mass audience. Consider the misguided 1993 “Nutcracker” directed by Emile Ardolino, which–purely for boxoffice reasons–featured a stiff Macaulay Culkin as the Prince, striking a few rudimentary poses while real dancers frolicked around him, trying to make the “Home Alone” kid appear an integrated part of the action. But rest assured that Robert Altman’s “The Company” is an entirely different proposition. To be sure, it’s a project inspired by Neve Campbell, who’s best known for her acting. She helped craft the story, and stars as an up-and-coming member of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. But on the evidence of the film itself, Campbell is obviously well trained in classical dance, and hasn’t lost her skill over the years when she concentrated on television and movies. She fits in snugly among the professionals she shares the screen with, and her work on the floor is of high calibre; a pas de deux (Lar Lubovitch’s “My Funny Valentine”) she performs with Domingo Rubio outdoors at Grant Park while a thunderstorm comes up is actually one of the picture’s terpsichorean highlight.

In fact, it will probably be your attitude toward ballet, in in purest form, that will determine your reaction to the film. Devotees should be amazed and pleased that the actual world of the artists–untidy, competitive yet supportive, sometimes disappointing yet often exhilarating–has been captured and transferred to the screen so well. In this one can feel the approach not only of Campbell and screenwriter Barbara Turner, whose zeal for authenticity in such matters is palpable, but the touch of Altman, who’s always had a special affinity for intricate ensemble pieces in which the individual episodes and characters glide in and out of relationships easily, without italicizing the connections among them. In many ways he’s always been a kind of cinematic choreographer, and so he’s the perfect choice for a sweeping, multi-faceted, often elliptical effort like this one. On the other hand, viewers looking for something with a more conventional structure and story arc may well find “The Company” too rarefied an experience for their taste. Ry, Campbell’s character, is the lead, but she’s hardly central to the plot in the ordinary sense; the camera loves her–understandably, since she’s strikingly attractive–but it doesn’t always linger on her, frequently focusing on other mini-dramas occurring within the group instead. (The most obvious example is the extravagantly oversized portrait of the company’s artistic director, played with hilarious zest by Malcolm McDowell, who’s invited to steal scene after scene with his imperious manner.) And while Ry is provided with a romantic attachment in the handsome form of Josh (the winningly laid-back James Franco), a chef in a high-toned restaurant, their relationship isn’t allowed to seize center stage, providing instead a kind of supportive counterpoint to the dominant theme of the company’s work. The result is a rather fragmented, fractured, even fitful narrative line, without the usual big finish to tie everything together, that many audiences will find frustrating; when a leading dancer snaps her Achilles’ tendon or Ry takes a serious tumble in the final ballet, for example, the incidents don’t become major soap opera moments, but rather are shrugged off as the sort of things that happen every day in this world. While that’s certainly true to the reality of the ballet profession, portraying events in this almost offhanded way hardly provides the melodramatic punch many viewers will expect–even demand.

Your reaction to “The Company” will, therefore, depend largely on your willingness to surrender conventional narrative expectations and immerse yourself in the understated, meandering storytelling technique that Altman, Turner and Campbell have elected to utilize, as well as to embrace characters who are lightly sketched rather than deeply probed. And it will certainly help if you’re inclined to watch ballet in the first place, since the picture includes several extended numbers: in addition to the pas de deux already mentioned, there are an opening dance set against the credits, in which the dancers are joined together by interlaced ribbons, and a finale consisting of Robert Desrosiers’ “The Blue Snake” (set to music by Van Dyke Parks). These are all extraordinarily well filmed, shot from different angles with roving cameras yet allowing one to “feel” the performance as a whole (unlike the dances in many pictures, which are cut so furiously that you have little sense of an entire number). But unless a viewer is interested in ballet per se, he’s likely to become impatient at their length–especially that of “Snake,” which is notable not so much for either its music or its dance as for its rather hideous costumes.

But even the non-aficionado will have to recognize Campbell’s dedication to the project, her dancing skill and her willingness to be part of an ensemble rather than a diva, as well as Altman’s sensitive realization of the concept she and Turner fashioned on the page. The contributions of McDowell and Franco, the one amusingly high-strung and the other nicely lackadaisical, are important elements, too, as are the nicely naturalistic turns by the supporting cast and the important contributions by all the members of the Joffrey, on and off the dance floor. The behind-the-camera crew must also be saluted. Though this is hardly a big-budget production, the technical work is excellent, from Andrew Dunn’s elegant widecreen cinematography to Susan Kaufman’s costumes and Gary Baugh’s stylish production design. We could do without the endless use of “My Funny Valentine” on the soundtrack, though–it seems to pour out of every radio and phonograph in sight.

Like the art form it celebrates, “The Company” won’t entrance everyone, but those in sync with its lithe, delicate moves will find it a joy.