Screenplay : Carol Heikkinen
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Amanda Schull (Jody), Zoe Saldana (Eva), Susan May Pratt (Maureen), Peter Gallagher (Jonathan), Donna Murphy (Juliette), Debra Monk (Nancy), Ethan Stiefel (Cooper), Sascha Radetsky (Charlie), Julie Kent (Kathleen), Ilia Kulik (Sergei), Eion Bailey (Jim)
"Center Stage" is a fairly low-key melodrama set against the high stakes world of professional ballet in the heart of New York. And, as it is fairly low-key and almost unoriginal, it would be completely forgettable if it didn't have a strangely retro feel to it. As if the obvious narrative and thematic comparisons to early '80s films like "Fame" (1980) and "Staying Alive" (1983) weren't enough, "Center Stage" pushes the similarities by scoring the majority of the film to decade-old hits like Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" and The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Higher Ground." The film could easily be mistaken for something that was made in 1987 and simply never found a distributor until now.
The heroine of the story is a plucky young dancer named Jody (Amanda Schull, who is a dancer with the San Francisco ballet). Despite her lack of innate talent and a "dancer's body," Jody gains admittance into the prestigious (and fictional) American Ballet Academy. There, she finds that dancing is grueling work, but the screenplay by Carol Heikkinen is far more interested in the drama that happens outside the dance studio. "Center Stage" is padded by several long dance sequences, including a "contemporary" ballet involving motorcycles and rock music that brings the movie to its predictable climax, but the narrative interest is invested in the various characters and how they interact.
Jody, of course, is defined by what she lacks: true talent. She tries to make up for it with energy and enthusiasm, but the rigid dance instructors keep complaining about her imperfect form and bad feet. Maureen (Susan May Pratt), on the other hand, is a truly gifted dancer with perfect form, but she's all technique and no heart. We know she's unhappy because she's bulimic and her mother (Debra Monk) is a driving force who never lets her think of anything but dancing. Maureen's dilemma of having to live out her mother's dream rather than her own is age-old to the point of being almost mythic.
The movie gets a shot of much-needed energy from Eva (Zoe Saldana), a streetwise black dancer who has a great deal of natural talent, but no discipline and a bad attitude. She is the only one gutsy enough to stand up to Juliette (Donna Murphy), a one-time ballet star turned hard-nosed dance instructor with a secret heart of gold, and Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), the egotistical head of the academy. It is testament to the conventionality of the story that they all come to understand and admire each other by the end of the film.
Jody's major dilemma is complicated when she becomes involved with Cooper (Ethan Stiefel, who is widely considered one of the best dancers in the world), a rising star in the world of ballet who has a vested interest in usurping Jonathan's authority at the academy because Jonathan stole his girlfriend. We know Cooper is a rebel because he wears a black leather jacket, rides a big motorcycle, and treats Jody like dirt after sleeping with her. He still gives her the lead role in his first big production, and they end up dancing out their romantic scenario on stage, which also involves Jody's other suitor, a quiet and decent young man named Charlie (Sascha Radetsky).
The film benefits from better-than-expected performances from a group of dancers who have never acted before (this movie is the first film credit for almost every principal actor), and it is only their natural talent that lets them get away with the film's lame dialogue (at one point, Jody complains that she cannot go back into the dance studio because she looks "splotchy"). Amanda Schull makes a sympathetic main character, and it is ironic that it is the "professional" actors like Peter Gallagher who look the most uncomfortable.
"Center Stage" was directed by Nicholas Hytner, who made a pair of excellent stage-to-screen adaptations in "The Madness of King George" (1994) and "The Crucible" (1996). He has since made the decidedly underwhelming alternative family drama "The Object of My Affection" (1998). "Center Stage" will not do much for his career, as it is so completely conventional and melodramatic (every plot device is obvious from miles away, and there isn't a surprise to be found anywhere) that it seems anyone could have directed it and come out with the same basic movie.
©2000 James Kendrick