Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Starring Amanda Schull, Ethan Stiefel, Peter Gallagher, Sascha Radetsky, Donna Murphy, Zoë Saldaña, Debra Monk. (2000, PG-13, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 12, 2000
It's not necessary to be a young girl in love with her new tutu in order to like Center Stage, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. Center Stage is this era's contribution to the time-honored tradition of such dance dramas as The Turning Point, A Chorus Line, Saturday Night Fever, and Flashdance. But one of the things Center Stage never captures (which these other movies manage to convey so well) is the compulsion to dance that these young would-be stars all share. You get the sense that most of the kids at the heart of this story would be just as happy in another line of work, and lack that essential “gotta sing, gotta dance” hoofer gene. Center Stage focuses on a group of new entrants to the American Ballet Academy, a school from which three males and three females will be selected to join the professional company following their end-of-semester performances. The students are a blended assortment of character types and ethnicities, although all but one of the peripheral black characters are heterosexual. The story is told from the perspective of Jody Sawyer (Schull), a fresh face from the Midwest, who rooms with the two other principals in the story: Eva (Saldana), a black woman from Boston with an “attitude” problem, and Maureen (Pratt), the gifted student with “stage mother” and bulimia problems. Jody's problem becomes the fact that the company director (Gallagher) appraises her as “not very turned out” and not having “great feet.” Added to her problems is her involvement with roué star dancer Charlie (Radetsky), who is an emerging choreographer with a few behavior problems of his own that take the form of acting out because the star ballerina broke off their affair and married the company director. All in all, Center Stage contains standard-issue schoolyard dramas that gather more strength from the students' and teachers' Us-vs.-Them struggles than from any intrinsic battles with craft or professional artistry. To make matters worse, the film's dance sequences are shot undynamically and convey very little of the dozens of individual dramas that make up the ballet in favor of the overall view. Hynter, who directed Miss Saigon and Carousel on Broadway, has obvious trouble translating to the screen the aspects that made his direction so well-received on the stage. Center Stage, on the other hand, is unlikely to receive many curtain calls.