Center Stage: Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Based on the assumption that every generation needs to have its own folkloristic dance film, Nicholas Hytner’s Center Stage revisits the turf of such quintessentially 70s works as The Turning Point (for classic ballet), A Chorus Line (for Broadway dancing), and Saturday Night Fever (for disco), blending together several of their themes, characters, and moral dilemmas.

End result is a mildly entertaining divertissement that relies on audiences’ tolerance for a tale that recycles rather than reinvents familiar ideas, with only a few interesting variations.

The 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.

The movie version of A Chorus Line was both an artistic and commercial failure, so historically, the last big Hollywood dance films were Herbert Ross’s glossy The Turning Point and the John Travolta vehicle, Saturday Night Fever, both made in 1977. Center Stage takes from Ross’s ballet meller the conflict between Shirley MacLaine’s frustrated housewife and Anne Bancroft’s aging and lonely ballerina and transplants it into a male animosity between Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), the company’s former dancer and now artistic director, and Cooper (Ethan Stiefel, ABT’s soloist), its ambitious star-dancer who’s beginning to choreograph and would like to have his own company.

Additionally, Carol Heikkinen’s shrewdly calculated script borrows its suspense framework from A Chorus Line, here in the form of a cohort of enthusiastic newcomers enrolled in ABA (American Ballet Academy), out of which six dancers (three boys and three girls) will be asked to join the company, one of the world’s best troupes, 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 homo, Erik (Shakiem Evans), who’s placed in the periphery. One gets the feeling that the scripter has rushed to establish her protagonists’ straight orientation to clear the path for a yarn focusing as much on romantic affairs and entanglements as on professional careers.

Contrasted with Jonathan and Cooper, both depicted as headstrong macho egotists (very much in the manner of Michael Douglas’s Zack in A Chorus Line), are two charming and sensitive dancers who’re vying for the girls’ attention: Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), an honest, down-to-earth pal from Seattle, and Jim (Eion Bailey), who’s also attending Columbia’s pre-med school.

Almost every character is taken from classic American musicals and backstage films. 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 feet.” She’s contrasted with her daughter (Susan May Pratt), a brilliant but uptight dancer labeled as a bitch by her peers. A Russian emigrant dancer, Sergei, recalls the character played by Baryshnikov in 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 Company), an attractive youth who’s repeatedly told that she lacks technique and has the wrong body type for a ballerina. Her character recalls numerous ingnues in backstage films (Stage Door), a sincere, vulnerable girl, motivated by determination to get into the company against all odds.

Rather shamelessly, last reel draws on the premise of All About Eve, when a bulimic Maureen is replaced at the very last moment by her roommate and rival, Eva (Zoe Saldana), a rebellious Latina who defies the rules, to the utmost shock of all concerned. On a parallel track, when Erik is unable to perform due to an injury, choreographer Cooper all too willingly offers to do his part.

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. In scene after scene, Charlie tells an upset Jody, who’s maltreated by Cooper after a brief fling with him, that she should dance “with her heart.”

Ultimately, 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 coldhearted 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 mesmerizing 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 Stromen’s choreography is weak, and the grand finale (by Christopher Wheeldon) is tedious in its mlange 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 about youngsters on the fringes of pop music), to make a movie that will be true to the ballet world and yet have a broad appeal, is not always successful. Caught between the script’s banalities and his own love of dance, helmer Hytner, who staged the Broadway productions of Miss Saigon and Carousel, seems unable to communicate his enthusiasm for backstage movies.

Occasionally, the movie comes to life in its depiction of the lives of young dance students: their naive idealism, sheer physical prowess, determination to be better at what they do, pushing themselves ferociously to achieve it. There’s a nice scene in which a frustrated Jody takes a jazz dance class downtown, against company’s regulations, and all of a sudden the movie gets a shot of eroticized energy that recalls Dirty Dancing.

The big life choice of The Turning Point (Bancroft’s careerism versus MacLaine’s domesticity) are replaced here with the dilemma between the ballet and modern dance worlds. The movie explores different types of dancing: the strict ballet world with its rigid rules, and the freer, more popular disco-jazz dancing. That the two worlds collide becomes clear throughout the narrative, and particularly in the ending.

Center Stage doesn’t have a unified dance conception and it lacks 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 aiming to be electrifying.

Major Cast

Jody…………Amanda Schull
Eva……………Zoe Saldana
Thomas………Victor Anthony
Cooper……….Ethan Stiefel
Maureen…….Susan May Pratt
Jonathan……Peter Gallagher
Juliette……….Dona Murphy
Erik…………Shakiem Evans
Sergei………….Ilia Kulik
Charlie…….Sascha Radetsky
Joan Miller..Elizabeth Hubbard
Jim…………….Eion Bailey

Credits

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Laurence Mark production. Produced by Laurence Mark. Co-producer, Caroline Baron. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Screenplay, Carol Heikkinen. Camera (DeLuxe, wide screen), Geoffrey Simpson; editor, Tariq Anwar; music, George Fenton; production design, David Gropman; art direction, Peter Rogness; set decoration, Susan Bode; costume design, Ruth Myers; sound (Dolby/SDDS), Michael Barosky; choreography by Susan Stroman; additional choreography by Christopher Wheeldon; assistant director, Sam Hoffman; casting, Daniel Swee.

MPAA Rating: Pg-13
Running time: 114 min.