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CENTER STAGE(director: Nicholas Hytner; screenwriter: Carol Heikkinen; cinematographer: Geoffrey Simpson; editor: Tariq Anwar; cast: Amanda Schull (Jody), Zoe Saldana (Eva), Susan May Pratt (Maureen), Peter Gallagher (Jonathan Reeves), Donna Murphy (Juliette Simone), Debra Monk (Maureen’s manipulative mother), Sascha Radetsky (Charlie), Eion Bailey (Jim), Shakiem Evans (Erik), Ethan Stiefel (Cooper), Christine Dunham (Audition Teacher), Karen Shallo (Mother at Audition), Laura Hicks (Nervous Mother), Elizabeth Hubbard (Joan Miller), Ilia Kulik (Sergei), Julie Kent (Kathleen); Runtime: 113; Columbia Pictures; 2000)
“The aim of the film was to be entertaining, the art part it dumbed down for mass consumption.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a backstage drama of talented young dance students trying to be somebody, knowing that only a handful of them will achieve success in their chosen field. They try out for a fictional American Ballet Academy in NYC, hoping to be chosen for a coveted spot in their prestigious workshop program. If successful, three females and three males will be chosen for a dancing spot in the elite American Ballet Company.

The story is bogged down with clichés and cardboard characters, while the ballet dancing is the thing of beauty in this film. Most of the dancers are professionals of the highest standards and it shows by their excellent performance. One of them, the film’s star, Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), is recognized by most in the field as the best in the world. The framework of the story is the same formula seen in almost every Hollywood sports film, as the art of dancing is only paid lip service to. In fact, if this film wasn’t about ballet dancers, it could have been about chorus dancers or football players, and the same trite tale could have been woven. Which shows you how much art mattered. The best reason for seeing the film is that the dancing is alive and pulsating, choreographed by the likes of Balanchine, Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon, as well as Ivanov and MacMillan. But if you want to see a quality ballet film with a real love story and with the pangs of what it means to be an artist, then your best bet is “The Red Shoes(48).”

The story follows a group of these young ballet students emphasizing their aspirations, their emotional problems, and their athletic stamina to take the rigors of their difficult work. The film is hip to ballet dancers, letting us in on the secret that many of the male dancers are gay and that a straight dancer is much welcomed by the ladies. Many of the dancers smoke a lot in the hopes of killing their appetite, as weight is something they are all concerned about. And, the film makes a point of showing how it becomes apparent that they can be easily devastated by criticism. They also gossip a lot, as well as compete hard to get a starring role, and are unduly jealous of another’s success.

All the film characters are made of stock types: the tough teacher who really cares; the unsophisticated who experiences rejection in love and harsh criticism from her teacher, but overcomes these embarrassments; the overeater who gets bounced from the academy for lack of self-control; the surly rebel who learns that it is sometimes necessary to conform; and, the bulimic with the pushy mother, who confronts her mother at last. It is was too much effort to be following all their predictable stories, especially when you know everything is going to be tied up in a nice pink ribbon by the end.

The main story deals with a nervously driven student and the best dancer in the world, and how they relate to each other. Jody (Amanda) is the dancing student whose parents would rather she were a freshman in college than dancing in NYC, and can’t share the joy she has in being accepted to the ABA. Cooper is the star of the ballet company whose ballerina girlfriend Kathleen married Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), the company’s head. On the rebound, he picks up the pretty but insecure Jody and takes advantage of her by taking her to bed and then fluffing her off. But he also gives her a big break and puts her into the new radical ballet he is creating as the guest choreographer for the students’ illustrious final exam, a workshop performance before a live audience. This gives her a chance to be recognized by all the directors of the major professional ballet troupes attending the performance.

The minor stories were about Sergei (Ilia Kulik, real-life Russian figure skater), a Russian dancer separated by distance from his ballerina girlfriend, who out of loneliness picks up a girl in a disco spot by saying he is in the Russian Mafia because when he tells other girls he meets that he’s in the ballet, they only laugh at him. Sascha Radetsky is Charlie, the engaging student dancer from the West Coast, who is the nice boy Jody eventually becomes involved with. Zoe Saldana is Eva Rodriguez, a black Hispanic with an attitude problem, who is a great dancer but must learn obedience. Eva sasses her teacher (Donna Murphy), comes late to class, chews gum in class, but loves to dance. And then there is Maureen (Pratt), who has been pushed into dance by her overbearing mother. Maureen is considered by the company to have the best technique but no heart in her dancing. Maureen reluctantly meets a college student studying medicine and goes against her mother’s wishes by dating him.

This film reminded me a lot of Hollywood’s ode to lowbrow culture “Band Wagon,” which was much more entertaining and had a much superior script.

In Center Stage there was plenty of dancing at rehearsals and it had two big ballet numbers. The aim of the film was to be entertaining, the art part it dumbed down for mass consumption. What it comes down to is that the soap opera story didn’t completely take away from the dance. Some sparkle could be detected in the eyes of the students when they were dancing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”