"Here, I'll give you the list," Neve Campbell says. "I've had bunions. I've had broken toes. I've had fallen arches. I've had strained tendons in my arches. I've had tendinitis in my Achilles'. I've had torn ligaments and sprained ankles in both ankles. Shinsplints. Pulled calves. In my knees, I've had chondromalacia and tendinitis. I've had pulled hamstrings. I've had snapping-hip syndrome and arthritis in my hips. I've had sciatic problems in my back and the arthritis in my neck. Oh, and I sprained my wrists."

The subject is injuries compiled while dancing, and as she talks, Campbell -- who trained at Canada's National Ballet School before morphing into a bankable Hollywood star -- points casually to the body parts in question.

She's not complaining. She's just explaining how hard the career to which she once aspired can be.

Dance itself, more than any individual actress or dancer, is the real star of Campbell's new film, which is scheduled to open here Jan. 23. Directed by Robert Altman and featuring the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, "The Company" is a kind of fictionalized documentary intended to show the rivers of tears, sweat and blood that go into the creation of this gloriously evanescent art. Campbell, who's settled into a room at the Four Seasons to help publicize the film, says she worked for seven years to get it made.

A few days later, Altman sits in a Manhattan hotel suite, groping for words to describe the lives of the dancers he came to know and admire. "They're so in -- like, in a tube," he says, having isolated themselves socially because "the disciplines are so demanding and unique." They never make any money. They compete for very few jobs. And even when they succeed: By age 35, "fshhhht, they're finished."

Altman finds Campbell hard to sum up as well.

"She's different from other actors, for some reason," he says. "I don't know anybody who has the same drive and tenacity" in whom "you don't see it, in an aggressive, abrasive way. I mean, like Barbra Streisand."

He raises his arms as if holding a rifle and takes imaginary aim at the back wall.

"Her targets are always far off," he says.

Bad Break

You wouldn't think they had much in common, Robert Altman and Neve Campbell -- and on the surface, at least, you'd be right.

The director is 78, a big man who looks his age but still cuts an imposing figure, even when motionless in a straight-back chair. His credits include "M*A*S*H" (the brilliantly subversive original, not the preachy TV version), "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Nashville," "The Player" and "Gosford Park." The actress is 30 (her first name rhymes with Bev), with girl-next-door good looks and a non-throaty laugh that conjures not so much screen diva as nervous teen. She's best known for "Scream," "Scream 2," "Scream 3" and the sitcom "Party of Five."

Below the surface -- well, appearances deceive.

Campbell started dancing when she was 6, joined the Canadian National Ballet School at 9, and left at 14, stressed out and also concerned that the training was emphasizing pure technique over the art of dance. Not long afterward, she got a part in the Toronto production of "Phantom of the Opera" and dropped out of school entirely -- "Big talk between my dad and me!" -- to concentrate on her career. More and more this meant acting, but she kept taking dance lessons until she was 20, when she was cast in "Party of Five" and her 15-hour-a-day schedule ruled them out.

During breaks in the TV production, she made movies, most notably the "Scream" films, Wes Craven's slay-it-for-laughs takes on horror. Their spectacular success both placed her in great demand and threatened to narrow her options. She'd gotten "so big so quickly," she says, that some directors with whom she'd have liked to work "felt that studios were pushing me on them." As a result, "their instinct was to say: 'No, she did horror films and "Party of Five," what's she done?' "

Campbell sticks up for "Scream" and its sequels. "I don't watch horror movies," she says, but these "were satirical, they were funny, they made fun of horror." Still, she found it best to decline other horror parts. She also learned from the critical thrashing she took for "Three to Tango," a failed romantic comedy. "The script wasn't ready yet, and because I knew that, I was at my worst. Because I wasn't committed to it. And I won't do that anymore." She's proud of her work in the quirky gangster film "Panic"; in "Last Call," with Jeremy Irons; and in "Investigating Sex," a never-released independent film directed by Altman's close friend Alan Rudolph.

Meanwhile, she had this idea for a film about dance.

She took it to a studio, which put a writer on it, but maybe six months later she took it away again. She didn't want to make something with a standard melodramatic plotline, as in: Girl from wrong side of the tracks goes from chorus line to the big time; and she didn't want to make a star vehicle, as in: "Oh, let's see Neve Campbell in a movie!" Dance is the most unappreciated art form, she says, because "it's about it looking effortless, so when you watch dance, you can't tell how difficult it is." The individual and collective struggle behind the beauty is what she wanted the audience to see.

She hired screenwriter Barbara Turner, who spent several years on the project, interviewing company members at length and watching their seasons unfold. Campbell joined her whenever she could. Turner was an old friend of Altman's, and the two women both ended up thinking that the film should be "Altmanesque." So why not go for the real thing?

"I didn't want to do this film," says Altman, who knew next to nothing about dance, "and I tried not to do it a lot." But in the end, he decided he'd be "a chicken" not to try, because "that's exactly what I should be doing, looking into things that I don't know about."

The rest is history -- except that it almost wasn't.

Campbell, who does her own dancing in the film, hired a coach and began training 81/2 hours a day to prepare for the role. She'd been at this for more than four months and was three days from going to Chicago to start working directly with the Joffrey dancers when she cracked a rib. She'd been rehearsing a dance the coach had never seen before, and he'd lifted her wrong.

"I saw like 12 doctors," she says, "and every single doctor said, 'Wow, a broken rib, there's nothing you can do, but don't move.' " Not moving wasn't an option, however. The Joffrey had only a limited window in which it could work with the filmmakers.

"A broken rib is the worst," Campbell says. "You can't breathe, and you're doing cardio all the time. And you can't sleep. You can't lie anywhere, there's no position that you can lie in. So I wasn't sleeping and I was dancing eight hours a day with the Joffrey and then shooting and producing. It was crazy!"

She can laugh without hurting now, and she does.

One Star Turn

Not all Robert Altman films are alike, so "Altmanesque" remains an imprecise term. But it is commonly understood to imply a multi-layered creation that refuses to dwell too obviously on any one theme or narrative line -- a dancer coping with injury, say -- lest that become what the whole thing is "about."

"I appreciate how many ideas can remain in motion in an Altman film," says choreographer Lar Lubovitch, who plays himself in "The Company" and has followed the director's career for three decades. "You're trusted as an audience to maintain awareness of various layers of narrative." If he were to compare Altman's work with anything, Lubovitch says, it would be with music, because in a piece of music there are always layers of sound that the ear puts together as a whole.

Suppose, then, that you were making an Altmanesque documentary about the making of "The Company." You'd want to resist the temptation to focus only on the relationship of director and star, because there'd be so many other threads and layers to weave in.

Take Lubovitch, for example: A well-known choreographer with his own New York-based company, he creates especially innovative dances in part, Campbell says, because he has worked extensively with figure skaters and "he's used to using the momentum of the ice. So there are certain lifts that he's created on ice that he figured out how to use." Lubovitch also turned out to be a natural actor, she says. "When they said 'Cut,' we were all staring at each other, like: Did that just happen?"

Or take Deborah Dawn, the veteran Joffrey dancer who plays "Deborah" in the film. At 44, she is the exception who proves the rule about the shortness of dancers' careers. Inevitably, she says, the film tried to make her into "the old ballerina being pushed totally out" -- which was fine, though she doesn't see herself that way -- but when Altman cut the one scene in which Dawn felt she "still looked good, dancewise," she summoned up her nerve and protested.

"Do you want me to take everything out?" Altman threatened. But she held her ground, and "an hour later he said: 'We're doing it tonight at 9.' "

You'd surely want to zoom in on Gerald Arpino, co-founder and artistic director of the Joffrey, whose screen analogue, "Mr. A," is played with manic, self-absorbed verve by Malcolm McDowell, and you'd want to spend some quality time with Davis Robertson, whose penchant for dancing alone in the studio in the middle of the night inspired one of the film's loveliest sequences. Still, you'd always come back to the director and the star.

Or non-star, really.

Campbell plays a mid-level member of the Joffrey, which prides itself on being an "all star/no star" company. Early on, Altman asked her to forgo even such minimal Hollywood perks as a dressing room. "The minute you separate yourself," he told her, "you've destroyed what you're trying to do, because you're not just one of the dancers."

Not that she could blend in totally. Dawn remembers her recoiling in horror one day ("Noooo!!! Turn it off!") when the dancers decided to check out her teen witch movie, "The Craft." But she "completely committed herself to being viewed as a dancer," Lubovitch says, with no trace of a star's usual obsession with "how she was going to look."

Altman, for his part, came into the project assuming he would use such standard tools as slow motion, then thought: "Wait, wait, wait -- then you've destroyed half of what dance is, and that's tempo. When I change the tempo, it's false."

Most of the dances that show up in the film are part of the Joffrey's repertoire, but the filmmakers made two exceptions to this. The biggest came when Altman chose to end with a performance of Robert Desrosiers's "Blue Snake" -- a theatrical fairy tale of a dance that Campbell first saw performed when she was 9 -- instead of a more traditional masterpiece.

"The dancers don't like it," he says, but among other reasons for the choice, "there's a metaphor there that I couldn't resist, and that's the giant eating the dancers. That's what this whole thing does, the process -- it just eats them up."

The other exception was Campbell's one star turn.

"My Funny Valentine," which Campbell dances with Domingo Rubio, is a slow-tempo Lar Lubovitch duet set to the Rodgers and Hart song of the same name, and if you're not a dance aficionado, you might suspect that it's an especially easy one, selected as a showcase for a movie star. You'd be wrong.

"I would rate it as quite difficult," Lubovitch says. Slow dancing can be "very exposing" and "takes a great deal of mental concentration." Dawn agrees. It takes a special dancer to get the human rawness of the piece just right, she says.

Campbell picked out "Funny Valentine" after viewing "dozens and dozens" of pieces. She hates describing a dance in words, because it's like "writing a poem and then telling people what they're supposed to get from it." But she says that Lubovitch talked about his pas de deux as featuring "a young woman who doesn't trust" and "a relationship that opens" despite her fears.

Altman is more blunt.

"It's all sex," he says.

'Out of Sight'

"The Company" opened in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles last month and the reviews have been good, though they tend to call attention to the utter flimsiness of its conventional plot line. Altman doesn't disagree.

"Boy meets girl, boy likes girl" is how he begins his summary of Campbell's screen relationship with her non-dancing paramour, James Franco. "They fall in love, boom boom boom, and they both get injured" -- this happens just before the film ends -- "and I daresay that three weeks from after their injuries have healed, they're broken up." The whole thing is really just another pas de deux, he says, which is why he stripped most of the dialogue out of the couple's scenes together in favor of four different versions of "My Funny Valentine" on the soundtrack.

As for the commercial possibilities of a plotless, documentary-like take on a non-popular art form -- well, Altman is in low-expectation mode. "I hope it becomes bigger than the Tolkien trilogy and all that," he says. "But the truth of the matter is that we have succeeded. We did what we did. And I am totally content with that."

Campbell is more than content: She's ecstatic. Altman, "understood perfectly, exactly, what it was that I wanted to have made," she says, "which is virtually impossible." Then came the astonishing moment, she recalls, when he took her aside and said, "Neve, I just need to thank you, because this was the best experience of my life."

She reacted appropriately: "I said, 'Whaaaaaat? Come on, Bob!' "

But he meant it.

"It just took me into a world that I hadn't really reckoned with before," Altman says. "Suddenly I have 50 people that I never would have known otherwise, and I really like." His feelings for them include both admiration and "a sense of melancholy" about what happens when they can't work anymore. But the thing to remember is that "they picked a very hard row to hoe, and they're out there hoeing it."

"I think he just fell in love with the dancers," Campbell says. "But for that to come out of his mouth? I don't need to continue, really! I'm done!"

She's not, though. She's just starting out. And here's where the barely 30-year-old actress and the nearly 80-year-old director truly find themselves on common ground. For Altman has spent a professional lifetime making the films he wanted to make, on his own terms, with big budgets when he could command them and tiny budgets when he couldn't -- and Campbell is in the process of figuring out how to do the same.

"There are so few good films being made, there are so few good roles," she says. "The studios are using the same five female actors and the same five male actors in every single film, and the same plotline in every film, and everybody else is sort of left to themselves." The solution is to generate your own material. She's developing a movie called "A Private War," about Tourette's syndrome (her brother has the disease). Last month, she optioned a script about Louise Brooks, a dancer who went to Hollywood during the silent screen era, then tried to buck the system. Someday, too, she'd like to direct.

"Well that's easy," Altman says when informed of this particular shared ambition. "You're just -- you're drawing with other people." As for maintaining control over one's own work, in an environment famously hostile to that impulse, he doesn't think that's such a big deal either. "That's what everybody faces," he says. "You either give that up, or you don't."

What, then, does he think the future holds for the young woman whose targets are always far off?

"I don't know what her ambitions are, I really don't," Altman says. "I think that when I hear what they are, I'm going to say, 'Oh, that's out of sight, I don't think she's going to reach that.' But probably she will."

Neve Campbell, who stars in and produced "The Company," says director Robert Altman "understood perfectly" what she wanted.Neve Campbell and Domingo Rubio in a scene from her new film, a fictionalized documentary featuring the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.