The 2000 film “Center Stage” — the source material for “Center Stage: On Pointe,” which is itself the third film in what we are now forced to call the “Center Stage” universe — is, for what it is, modestly brilliant. Written by Carol Heikkinen, who also wrote cult classic “Empire Records,” and directed by Nicholas Hytner, a theater director of some acclaim, the original “Center Stage” is a slightly too-cerebral melodrama about the pressures of professional dance meeting the pressures of being a teenager. It did not do notably well at the box office, but — like “Empire Records” — “Center Stage” found an audience after its theatrical release, due to some combination of home video sales and TV airings of the relatively family-friendly film.
Because the film is so easy to watch — this is a nice way of saying “mediocre” — it invites repeat viewings, to the point that what happens ceases to matter at all. Instead the viewer has to contend with Peter Gallagher’s scenery-chewing performance as a narcissistic company director, teen movie staple Susan May Pratt at the height of her career, and then-unknown Zoe Saldana’s cinematic debut as the attitudinal, “fiery” Eva Rodriguez. Actual American Ballet Theater principal Ethan Stiefel plays a thinly disguised version of himself, merely so that he can perform jeté entrelacés with cinematic abandon; and for some reason, figure skating gold medalist Ilia Kulik is there, too, pining after someone named Galina.
The film is a cabinet of Y2K curiosities, and though it doesn’t aim higher than its station (this was the golden age of teen movies for the kids who grew up to be millennials, after all), it’s suffused with a certain kind of integrity of vision. (It has a pedigree, too: The film is edited by Tariq Anwar and cast by Daniel Swee, who both would go on to work on Oscar-winning features.) The film is careful to balance the realism of struggling to make it as a dancer with the beauty and grace of dance itself; there are no dream sequences, no slow-motion, and very little non-diegetic music, because these dancers are in the business of creating a fantasy, not living in one already. It is that opposite of fantasy the film is most engaged with. While ballet requires a very rigid type of life — including a very specific type of body — dancers, like most people, come in all shapes and sizes. The question is whether those bodies must conform to dance, or dance can conform to them; or to take it even further, whether or not dance is worth what it requires of its disciples, the literal blood and sweat and tears. The question is also, of course, whether or not Jody (Amanda Schull) will kiss Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) or Cooper (Stiefel) at the end of the movie. This is a movie for teenage girls, but “Center Stage” suggested that genre didn’t have to be dumb, even as it necessarily pandered.
The best part of “Center Stage: On Pointe” are the 30-odd seconds, about 20 minutes in, when the characters all watch “Center Stage.” They are, according to the rules of the film, watching the American Ballet Company’s internal taping of the performance, so that they might learn something from it. The callback to Jody’s climactic performance with Charlie and Cooper is to tie off some in-world loose ends; while Radetsky reprises his role as some kind of teacher for the ballet school, Charlie’s wife Jody is said to be traveling in Europe (“12 Monkeys,” in this case, being Europe). But the contrast serves to cheapen “Center Stage: On Pointe.” As much nostalgia as I have for “Center Stage,” it isn’t a great movie. But in comparison to “Center Stage: On Pointe,” it is “Citizen Kane.”
“Center Stage: On Pointe” stars Nicole Muñoz as Bella Parker, the younger sister of the breakout dancer from Detroit in the second “Center Stage” film, “Center Stage: Turn It Up.” In the first few minutes, the film hastily establishes that the ballet company is in some kind of crisis and needs something “modern” to entice audiences. Enter talented ingénue Bella, encouraged to audition by teacher (and her sister’s boyfriend, I guess? It’s kind of confusing) Tommy (Kenny Wormald). As soon as she steps onto the audition stage, the ballet instructors (including Gallagher, making the most of his one day on set) scoff at her lack of formal ballet training and the holes in her tights. But, in a beat that is so poorly conveyed it has to be exclaimed loudly, he “can’t take [his] eyes off her.” It’s almost as if there is more to stage presence than just technique, the film implies — practically falling over itself to imply it harder and harder. Over the objections of the company’s stern ballet instructor, Bella makes it into a summer intensive, or something, where the dancers will either be training or auditioning, or both, who knows. It’s literally ballet summer camp; the players decamp to a well-appointed dance studio in the middle of the woods to dance, bicker, kiss, isolate each other at cafeteria tables, and give each other saccharine pep talks. There is some plot, but it is devoid of either interest or sense.
One of the more confusing elements of the story is that “modern” dance is some kind of blight on classical dance, nearly a hundred years after Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham became titans of the field. But then again, based on what the film is showcasing, they seem to be conflating “modern” with “contemporary” or even “urban” dance, when those are all distinct things. (Musical selections include Adele’s “Hello,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and Rob D’s “Clubbed To Death.”) The style of dance in “Center Stage: On Pointe” that has the ballerinas so ruffled is the type of dancing that you might see on a concert stage or in a music video — and indeed, though it is frustrating that the film feels like 15-odd low-budget music videos strung together, the dance in those segments, and the way it’s filmed, are some of the best parts of the movie. Makes sense, because director Director X. made his career in music videos — notably, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” Insofar that there is writing in this script at all, it is penned by Nisha Ganatra, who is best known as the director for a few episodes of “Transparent.” The writing is easily the weakest element of a weak film — somehow managing to gloss over possibly interesting material, like a body-image subplot, to instead engage with the depth-less story of a cocky dancer getting his just desserts.
“Center Stage: On Pointe” doesn’t merit much attention or analysis — when something is made with little consideration, it’s difficult to expend much, in kind, on the product. But it is a pity to see “Center Stage”’s limited but clear vision mangled to this film that appears to have been made by people who have no interest in either the stuff of the film — dance — or the people who make up the audience — teenage girls. This is a threequel that exists just to point an arrow — or an attitude, in this case — back to the stronger original.