2000 has been a fairly dreadful year, thus far, in movies. Week after week,
new releases are presented to the country, and week after week, it seems, the
pictures aren't worth the celluloid they were made on. Sooner or later, a
film was going to finally be released that would really get me excited, that
would cause me to sit up straight and take notice. It wasn't a matter of
"if," but "when." Unexpectedly, "Center Stage," by acclaimed director
Nicholas Hytner (1996's "The Crucible"), is an often remarkably exhilarating
and surprisingly insightful dance drama, perhaps the most impressionable and
well-made in its genre since 1987's "Dirty Dancing."
Wisely, in casting the movie, Hytner opted to give the majority of roles to
real-life dancers, so as to be more free and alive in the choreography, not
having to use camera tricks and quick jump-cuts when an actor's stand-in is
brought into the sequence. This filmmaking decision pays off splendidly
because, although it was initially risky casting novice actors/pro dancers in
the major roles, Hytner has gotten fine performances out of each of them,
along with their stunning expertise in understanding and flowing with the
"Center Stage" begins with a select group of young dancers being chosen to
move to New York City to practice at the prestigious American Ballet Academy,
where only three men and three women will eventually be picked at the close
of the year to become members of the American Ballet Company. Jody Sawyer
(Amanda Schull) is a wide-eyed 17-year-old who decides to put college on hold
in order to go to the ABA, and follow through with the dream she has had
since she was a child. Once there, Jody becomes close friends with roommate
Eva (Zoe Saldana), also freshly chosen for the Academy, who has what it takes
to be a professional dancer, but has an overly direct attitude problem that
defers her chance of working her way onto the good sides of her instructors.
Their third, and final, roommate is Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a highly
talented ballerina who has been at the Academy since age 9, but who doesn't
even want to be a dancer, instead trying to fulfill her mother's (Debra Monk)
wishes and dreams.
Of the three, it is Jody who has the most willingness to practice and be the
best that she can be, but is told right off the bat by one of her hard-edged
instructors (Donna Murphy) that her feet and body type are all wrong. Once
there, Jody is smitten by Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), a young instructor and
nearly perfect dancer who leads her into believing he likes her, even though
he only wants to use her. More earnest and caring to Jody's feelings and
future is Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), a fellow dancer who, nonetheless, is
rebuffed when Jody mistakenly believes it could work out between Cooper and
herself. Meanwhile, Eva befriends gay dancer Erik (Shakiem Evans), while
Maureen begins to realize how much more satisfying life could be for her
without having dancing on her shoulders, when she starts a relationship with
a handsome, sweet-natured waiter (Eion Bailey).
"Center Stage" is an exceptional film in more ways than one. Most notably,
the dance sequences, which include ballet, rock dance, and salsa, are
showstopping, alive with astonishing energy and genuine excitement,
adjectives rarely able to be put to rightful use in present-day film reviews.
Since most of the players have dance experience, they clearly understand the
power that this art form has the ability to project, and all of them deliver
a sense of joy of dancing. Some of the more unconventional setpieces are the
highlights, including one played to the hard-edged, rocking beat of the Red
Hot Chili Peppers' "Higher Ground," and a climactic scene between Schull,
Stiefel, and Radetsky that is brilliantly choreographed and veritably
effective, as it closely mirrors their relationships in real life.
Amid the dancing is, indeed, several stories that are played out, and what is
so surprising is how well-handled each of the characters are. Jody, the
film's main protagonist, comes-of-age in the course of the picture, not
exactly by making the transition from child to young woman, but by learning
what is most important, and wising up to the frequently harsh ways of the
world. When she dances in the finale, we are indubitably able to see what
kind of a determined, intelligent person Jody has blossomed into in the last
year. Amanda Schull, in her film debut, is not only a beautiful face, but
also a natural actress, and the type of likable person that one enjoys
following throughout the film.
As Eva, Zoe Saldana is a standout. Brought up in Boston, Eva adores ballet,
but her attitude and unwillingness to follow by a strict set of rules puts
her at a clear disadvantage with the other dancers she is, in essence,
learning with and competing against.
Out of all of the main younger people in the film, only Susan May Pratt is an
actress, rather than a dancer. Previously seen in 1999's "10 Things I Hate
About You" and "Drive Me Crazy," Pratt is given her meatiest role to date. As
Maureen, a girl just beginning to learn why it is that she has been so
unhappy in her life, Pratt equips herself quite nicely, and is given one
truthful scene between she and her boyfriend, played well by Eion Bailey,
that is touching in an honest way, rather than one that is purposefully
attempting to be melodramatic.
As far as the girls' male counterparts go, Ethan Stiefel, as the unreliable
Cooper, and, especially, Sascha Radetsky, as the winning Charlie, are
outstanding in both their respective roles, which are refreshingly not
paint-by-numbers, as well as on the dance floor. Peter Gallagher, as a
sympathetic dance instructor, as well as Donna Murphy and Debra Monk, as
Maureen's overbearing mother, appear in supporting adult roles.
Despite the seriousness and candid view of much of its subject matter
(including eating disorders, the literal pain that goes into ballet
practicing, and the cutthroat atmosphere of dance academies), where "Center
Stage" ultimately sparkles is in its pure entertainment value. Although not
one to usually "cut a rug," the film opened up my limited interest in dance
and, dare I say it, had the power of making me attracted to the act of doing
it. Perceptively written by Carol Heikkenen and vibrantly directed by Hytner,
"Center Stage" is the most energetic film so far this year, and one that has
every right to be placed alongside "Fame," "All That Jazz," and "Flashdance,"
in the annals of dance film classics.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman