Based on the assumption that every generation needs to have its own folkloric dance film, “Center Stage” revisits the turf of such quintessentially ’70s works as “The Turning Point” (classic ballet), “A Chorus Line” (Broadway dancing) and “Saturday Night Fever” (disco), and blends together several of their themes, characters and moral dilemmas. End result is an uneven, mildly entertaining divertissement that relies on audience tolerance for a tale that recycles rather than reinvents familiar ideas, with only a few interesting variations. Best marketing hook for Columbia’s early summer release is its fresh and appealing ensemble that’s most likely to connect with young urban viewers, but pic may have harder time pulling in older audiences in middle America.
Nicholas Hytner’s fourth feature takes the conflict between Shirley MacLaine’s frustrated housewife and Anne Bancroft’s aging and lonely ballerina from “The Turning Point” and transplants it into male animosity between Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), the company’s former dancer and now artistic director, and Cooper (Ethan Stiefel, an American Ballelt Theater soloist), its ambitious star-dancer who’s beginning to choreograph and would like to have his own company.
For its dramatic framework, Carol Heikkinen’s shrewdly calculated script borrows from “A Chorus Line.” Here, the focus is on a group of enthusiastic newcomers enrolled in the American Ballet Academy out of which six dancers (three male, three female) will be asked to join the company following a big gala performance in front of a live audience.
What’s noticeable about the introduction of the dancers in the first reel is not just their in-tune-with-the-times cultural diversity (there are blacks, Latinos, Asians), but the fact that it reduces the number of gay dancers to one black man, Erik (Shakiem Evans), who’s placed at the periphery.
A great many of the characters seem taken from classic American musicals and backstage films. Contrasted with Jonathan and Cooper, both depicted as headstrong macho egotists (very much in the manner of Zack in “A Chorus Line”), are two charming and sensitive dancers who are vying for the womens’ attention: Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), an honest, down-to-earth fellow from Seattle, and Jim (Eion Bailey), who’s also attending Columbia’s pre-med school.
There’s a tribute to “Gypsy” and other aggressive stage mothers in the character of Maureen’s mom, Nancy (Debra Monk). Working as the company’s publicist, she’s a frustrated dancer who never made it, because she “had the heart but not the feet.” She’s contrasted with her daughter (Susan May Pratt), a brilliant but uptight dancer labeled as a bitch by her peers. Then there is a Russian immigrant dancer, Sergei, who recalls Baryshnikov’s character in “The Turning Point.”
Story is told from the point of view of Jody (played awkwardly yet charmingly by Amanda Schull, an apprentice at San Francisco Ballet Co.), an attractive youth who’s repeatedly told that she lacks technique and has the wrong body type for a ballerina. Her character recalls numerous ingenues in backstage films (“Stage Door”), a sincere, vulnerable girl, motivated by determination to get into the company against all odds.
The final reel draws rather shamelessly on “All About Eve,” when, to the shock of all concerned, the bulimic Maureen is replaced at the very last moment by her roommate and rival, Eva (Zoe Saldana), a rebellious Latina who defies the rules.Unlike other dance films that emphasize devotion and self-sacrifice, “Center Stage” goes out of its way to demonstrate that dance is — and should be — joyful and sexy. But ultimately, the film suffers from its casual, supposedly more realistic approach to dance. The movie demystifies the dance world as a sanctuary, but, in the tradition of numerous teenage flicks, it romanticizes its youths, positioning them against a ruthless adult world, represented by domineering mothers, insensitive directors and cold-hearted dance teachers. In this story, the most important thing is to be true to one’s innermost feelings.
Both “The Turning Point” and “Saturday Night Fever” contained mesmerizingly beautiful dances, which are very much missed here. Unfortunately, “Center Stage” is directed and shot (by Geoffrey Simpson) in a way that doesn’t let the audience feel the exhilarating pull of the dance world.
There are snippets of classic pieces (Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes”), but Susan Stroman’s choreography is weak, and the grand finale (by Christopher Wheeldon) is tedious in its melange of classic and modern motifs: Riding his Harley Davidson clad in black leather, Cooper bursts onto a stage populated by white swans.
Effort by Heikkinen, who wrote “The Thing Called Love” and “Empire Record,” both about youngsters on the fringes of pop music, and Hytner, the director of “Miss Saigon” and the outstanding “Carousel” revival, to make a movie that will be true to the ballet world and yet have a broad appeal, is not always successful. Here and there, movie comes to life in its depiction of the lives of young dance students . There’s a nice scene in which a frustrated Jody takes a jazz dance class downtown, against company’s regulations, that suddenly gives the movie a shot of eroticized energy that recalls “Dirty Dancing.” The conflict between the strict ballet world and the freer disco-jazz idioms is developed throughout, but ultimately “Center Stage” lacks a unified dance conception and opportunities for dance numbers that are integral to the yarn.
In the name of a more down-to-earth approach, the filmmakers have taken the exotic personality and unique subculture out of the ballet world. Indeed, in sharp deviation from other similar films, “Center Stage” gives the impression that most of its protagonists would be just as fulfilled in other milieus — it’s a nearly fatal error for a dance movie that aims to be electrifying.