Center Stage (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Center Stage proves that all the sports movie cliches can be as successfully applied to ballet as to baseball, basketball, football, boxing, ice skating, skateboarding, karate, etc. With a plot that is constructed entirely out of formula situations and familiar plot elements, Center Stage feels like a rerun of Flashdance grafted onto The Cutting Edge. The only thing that differentiates this movie from anything to come before it is the meticulous attention to detail when it comes to the dance sequences, which are impeccably choreographed and presented in their entirety, with minimal cut-aways and other camera tricks. Of course, for those viewers who are hopelessly bored by ballet (a group which includes a majority of men and a percentage of women), this will be seen as a negative characteristic used only to pad out the running time (which, without these sequences, would have been a half-hour shorter).

For a few moments near the beginning, Center Stage looks like it has a chance to be revealing and hard-hitting. For example, there's a nice scene where we see what goes into breaking in ballet shoes, and can understand how these techniques might be symbolic of the hardships endured by the people who wear them. Alas, once the story gets underway, it quickly becomes apparent that the filmmakers have gone straight to the stock shelf and lifted most of their characters and situations from there. Serious social problems, such as bulimia and poor self-esteem, which are prominent in the world of public performance, could have provided a solid backbone for Center Stage - instead, they're used as throw-away plot devices. In the end, I didn't find out anything more about ballet than I learned years ago by attending my sisters' dance recitals.

The plot centers on three female dancers in advanced classes at New York's American Ballet Academy. Only the elite are admitted to the school (which takes 12 applicants per year), and, from their number, only the cream of that crop graduate to become members of the American Ballet Company. The most accomplished of the trio is Maureen (Susan May Pratt), whose strict "all work, no play" approach camouflages deep emotional issues with a controlling mother. Jody (Amanda Schull) may be the prettiest girl in the school, but her teachers lament her poor footwork and inappropriate body type. Eva (Zoe Saldana) is talented, but is hamstrung by a strong anti-authority attitude. Together, these three endure the ups-and-downs of a year at the school. Maureen's relationship with a pre-med student (Eion Bailey) threatens her resolve to be a professional dancer. Jody becomes involved with the self-absorbed Cooper Nielsen (Ethan Stiefel), an internationally known ballet star who discards women like used candy wrappers. And Eva's dislike of Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), the power behind the American Ballet Company, jeopardizes her future.

The film was directed by Nicholas Hytner, one of the ever-growing cadre of British directors who have come to Hollywood. To date, Hytner has made movies on both side of the Atlantic, helming The Madness of King George and The Object of My Affection - both worthy efforts. Center Stage is somewhat of a come-down. Hytner attempts to raise the film's cultural appeal by including several full-length ballet numbers (including one that could be called "rock ballet"), but the effect of these interludes is a double-edged sword. They are bright, colorful, and energetic, but they also point out how uninspired the rest of the production is.

It's not surprising that the dance numbers are Center Stage's highlight, since the majority of the primary cast's members were chosen for their athleticism and dance ability first and their acting talent second. Of the younger principals - Amanda Schull, Zoe Saldana, Susan May Pratt, Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky, and Shakiem Evans - only one, Pratt, has previous film experience (she was in 10 Things I Hate About You). Ironically, she also gives the most uneven performance. In an emotional scene where Maureen defends her bulimia, Pratt is cringingly bad. Shortly thereafter, the actress has a moment of quiet, heartbreaking sincerity. Everyone else is essentially mediocre. They go through their motions and say their lines, but the only time they do anything distinctive is when they're dancing. Veteran actors Peter Gallagher, Donna Murphy, and Debra Monk have supporting roles.

Because Hytner has gathered a troupe of real dancers, he is able to present the numbers "straight", without having to resort to fancy editing, digital effects, or other trickery. Watching Center Stage is in many ways like sitting through two separate yet interwoven films - but the longer one is the least interesting. The picture's target group is a little fuzzy. I'm sure Center Stage will have immense appeal to those who are interested in or involved in ballet, but, even including those many children who take lessons once or twice per week, that hardly seems like a big enough group to justify the production of a major motion picture, and the movie lacks the dramatic strength to pull in a wider viewership. Opening as counter-programming in the midst of the early summer season, Center Stage looks destined for a quick trip to video store shelves.

Center Stage (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2000-05-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1