Center Stage

Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring (Alphabetically): Eion Bailey, Shakiem Evans, Peter Gallagher, Ilia Kulik, Debra Monk, Donna Murphy, Susan May Pratt, Sascha Radetsky, Zoe Saldana, Amanda Schull, Ethan Stiefel.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and some sensuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
May 12, 2000

Once upon a time in a land called Hollywood, there used to be something called a "dance picture." Led by heroes such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, these brave films would rule the land, inspiring awe and elation in those that witnessed them. However, their time has passed, with only a few attempts at reviving the genre in the last 40 years. Phenomena like Saturday Night Fever and Flashdance were glimmers of hope, but faded quickly, producing no viable offspring. Now, the mighty rulers of Sony are attempting to win over the public with a combination of teen angst and ballet.

Center Stage follows several students who have been accepted to the American Ballet Academy -- the prestigious prep school for the American Ballet Company in New York. Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) is the unlikely candidate who doesn't quite fit the ABC's mold, yet has definite potential. She is roommates with Eva (Zoe Saldana), a very talented dancer with an authority problem, and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), who is the best dancer there and knows it. There are also the boys, including roommates Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) the cute one, Erik (Shakiem Evans) the gay one, and Sergei (Ilia Kulik) the Russian one.

With all the requisite characters in place, it's time to go to class. The head of the Academy, Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), runs a tight ship, expecting only the best from his students. If students are awkward like Jody, or sassy like Eva, they are going to have a hard time. Making a good impression is important, because every student wants a good part in the year-end workshop performances. That's where all the big ballet companies do their recruiting, especially the ABC. Only three girls and three boys will make it into the ABC, and this one performance will determine their chances -- and their future.

Now you're probably thinking, "Ha! It's quite obvious who those six students are going to be!" Surprisingly, it doesn't quite work out that way. While a lack of predictability was welcome, the total lack of substance was not. The cast of Center Stage is comprised almost entirely of dancers who have never acted in a film before. This was necessary to pull off the ballet, but the overall film had to be compromised. The screenplay by Carol Heikkinen (Empire Records) relies on tired conventions and over-familiar characters to tell the story.

If you just want to see some good dancing, you won't be disappointed. This film is a lot like Gladiator: minimal use of its featured content (in this case dancing instead of gladiatorial combat) intercut with meaningless dramatic dialogue. At least this film kept the dialogue from getting too long, and tried to keep the focus on what was more entertaining. There were even times when I thought the film was getting really good, only to let me down with another trite scene.

Alright, so it ain't An American in Paris, but with fewer film musicals being made, I cherish the little moments of nostalgia. In The Green Mile, Michael Clarke Duncan's character watched Top Hat with greatest look of joy I have ever seen. If he had seen some of the crap that I had to sit through, he would've been begging for the chair.

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Center Stage (2000)

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan