Center Stage

on May 12, 2000 by Wade Major
What appears to have been conceived as an attempt at a kind of teenage "The Turning Point," "Center Stage" comes off more like "Showgirls" with good posture. An embarrassingly amateurish 'inside' look at the emotional and physical rigors faced by aspiring young ballet dancers, "Center Stage" looks predestined to wind up on a wide assortment of 'year's worst' lists, plagued throughout by wretched acting, camp dialogue and direction so uninspired as to make the otherwise impressive dancing seem almost ordinary.

   The setting is The American Ballet Academy (ABA)--a prestigious institution that accepts only a handful of the best dancers from around the country each year, only a fraction of whom go on to careers with professional companies. The training is tough and demanding, a reflection of Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), artistic director for both the Academy and the equally prestigious American Ballet Company (ABC). The film focuses most of its attention on the travails of Jody--a sweetly naïve young dancer smitten with a throbbing infatuation for arrogant ABC superstar Cooper Nielson (Ethan Stiefel)--and Eva (Zöe Saldana), a talented but temperamental Puerto Rican girl with crippling disdain for authority. Rounding out the cast are such stock figures as Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), the nice guy who can't seem to draw Jody's attention away from Cooper, and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a brilliant dancer driven to self-destructive extremes by the pressure of a maniacally competitive mother.

   It all plays out a bit like "Felicity" in tights, providing few substantial insights into the actual back-stage world of aspirant ballet students. Unfortunately, the film fails just as miserably as soap opera, with the actors expected to convincingly deliver such hilariously silly lines as, 'I'm not dancing for them anymore. I'm dancing for me!' That almost none of the dancers have enough acting skill to pull off even well-written dialogue, much less the drivel they've been served here, is but one of the many indignities "Center Stage" imposes upon its cast. Only Saldana--a dark, exotic beauty with penetrating eyes and a ferocious intensity--demonstrates any substantial acting ability, bringing confidence and credibility to her handful of otherwise forgettable scenes.

   Screenwriter Carol Heikkenen ("Empire Records," "The Thing Called Love") is the principal culprit here, a writer whose previous experience with teen-oriented material is matched only by her utter inability to convey anything credible about the world of ballet or, for that matter, life in general. Especially problematic are a pair of subplots centering around very serious eating disorders, both of which consistently come off as comic relief, making it virtually impossible to treat any of the characters or their dilemmas seriously. A substantial degree of blame must also be laid on director Nicholas Hytner ("The Madness of King George," "The Crucible") who shoots the film's musical sequences with all the energy and panache of a parent taping a child's rehearsal with a home video camcorder, accomplishing the near-impossible task of making dancing seem downright academic.

   It's possible that fans of ballet in general may find their love for the form substantial enough to overlook such shortcomings, a factor that could play well for the film's eventual video and DVD life. As for theatrical prospects, a fast curtain call looks like a foregone conclusion. Starring Amanda Schull, Zoë Saldana, Susan May Pratt, Peter Gallagher, Donna Murphy, Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Written by Carol Heikkinen. Produced by Laurence Mark. A Columbia Pictures release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for language and some sensuality. Running Time: 113 min.

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