A cross between Fame and The Turning Point, Center Stage follows a group of students during their first year at the prestigious American Ballet Academy. All the movie clichés about backstage life are front and center in the screenplay by Carol Heikkinen (The Thing Called Love), from the small-town girl proving herself against all odds to the last-minute casting change, where someone will go onstage a nobody and walk off a star.
Perhaps it’s the nature of ballet itself – which is based on a very formal and rigid set of aesthetic principles – or the respectful innovation of director Nicholas Hytner, but Center Stage turns out to be more than merely fluff. Hytner (The Crucible, The Object of My Affection) understands both the importance of maintaining tradition and the desire to dance your own steps. So while much of this film is about breaking out of rigid molds set by the unforgiving instructors at the fictitious ABA (modeled after New York’s American Ballet Theatre school), Hytner maintains that the freedom to innovate requires immense dedication and even greater discipline.
Jody (Amanda Schull), passionate about dance but short on technique, and Eva (Zoë Saldana), who exudes streetwise sass and vigor, share a dorm room with the school’s ice queen, Maureen (Susan May Pratt), groomed for stardom by her ex-ballerina mother who works for the company.
The male leads serve as support for this unlikely trio: Erik (Shakiem Evans) treasures ballet because it’s a rarefied and cloistered world, while Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) approaches dance with an unvarnished work ethic. Then there’s Cooper (ABT star Ethan Stiefel), the company’s rebellious principal dancer, who’s still reeling from a perceived betrayal by his on- and off-stage partner.
In addition to portraying the rigorous physical demands of ballet on a professional level, Hytner emphasizes that these are very young people who’ve already turned over half their lives to dance and must make life-altering decisions, whether they’ve reached emotional maturity or not.
For all its corny efforts to redefine ballet as a populist art, and the sometimes iffy acting skills of dancers including Schull, Radetsky and Stiefel, Center Stage does capture something that should never be forgotten in a dance film: the sheer joy of movement.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].