“Whatever you feel, just dance it.”
This week, Center Stage celebrates 20 years since its release in theaters. And speaking as one of the few people who actually went and saw it, I’m really excited to be revisiting it all these years later. Center Stage tells the story of a group of advanced students at a ballet academy working to perform in the academy’s workshop, which will then decide their future, not only at the company, but at any company around the world. Though many didn’t find Center Stage to be the film to get them out of their homes and into the theater, I guess you could say that in the years since, it’s grown into a cult film, that’s a fun watch all these years later.
The film follows Jody Sawyer(Amanda Schull), a ballet student trying to make it into the fictional ABA (American Ballet Academy) located in the heart of New York City. However, she’s a “disaster,” as one of the ballet instructors so gently puts it. Her form is awful, her body shape is “not ideal,” and she just isn’t good. In the end, she’s accepted into this advanced group of ballet students, studying under the most prestigious ballet dancers in the world. How she even gets into the academy is never fully explained — just go with it. Fast forward and Jody has caught the eye of the dreamy, Cooper Neilson (Ethan Stiefel), a dancer and choreographer at the company, who is involved in a love triangle after the company’s director, Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), has an affair with Cooper’s wife. Insert sappy, dramatic, romance here. Jody’s roommates Eva Rodriguez (a young fresh-faced Zoe Saldana), and Maureen Cummings (Susan May Pratt) are along for the journey. Eva is the opposite of Jody and Maureen. Her extension is impeccable, her movement is on par, but her attitude is terrible — especially towards Jonathan. Eva’s hard exterior may end up ruining her chances of making the company. Though her behavior may be questionable, the film makes her out to be a bitch. Her attitude and “stand your ground” mentality may be looked at differently in today’s world. As for Maureen, she’s the star ballerina in this group of misfits, and the student who has been at the academy the longest. She’s a mixed bag of emotions, and the character in the story who’s on edge about whether or not this dancing is what she wants to do her whole life. Jody and Eva make friends with Charlie (Sacha Radetsky), Sergei (Ilia Kulik), and Erik (Shakiem Evans). Throughout all the ups and downs of dancing, this gang is able to form an unbreakable bond of friendship.
What’s great about Center Stage is the deep dive it takes into the world of ballet, with many liberties taken, of course. The film shows the physical toll it can take on one’s body, and illustrates that these dancers are very much athletes in their own craft. Dance, and the cut-throat and grueling competition of the process, has been showcased in movies like A Chorus Line and Fame. And though Center Stage lacks in comparison to those films, it separates itself by implementing the different varieties of dance, by creating a fun and modern twist on the somewhat straight-laced style of ballet. Plus, with a soundtrack that features Jamiroquai, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Michael Jackson, it adds for some pretty entertaining moments.
Now before you shake your head at what you may think is unwarranted praise for the film, let’s be clear, Center Stage is not perfect. The film’s “everybody wins” themes are probably the main reason why Center Stage is so cheesy. The song “Friends Forever” playing during a montage of a friendly outing — clearly — lays the cheese on thick. The Velveeta will ooze from your screen. Okay, so I may be a bit over dramatic, but it’s true. There are scenes that will make you go “oh my God” – especially when Cooper decides to ride his “bad boy” motorcycle onto the stage. Sure, it panders to its audience, and Copper’s workshop performance may have your eyes rolling into the farthest part of your head, but in the long run, it’s not bad. When you get right down to it, Center Stage can have some great dancing sequences. There’s the bits and pieces with the more classical ballet elements, and of course the finale when the dancing just goes wild — in a good way.
You can nit-pick everything, and maybe I’m being too lenient on the atrocities of this film, but to be honest, I really enjoy Center Stage. The acting is so-so, with various actors being cast for more of their dancing abilities versus their acting. It’s the story, however, that inhibits this film from being great. It also depends on how much sappiness you can take from one viewing. See, Center Stage doesn’t try to be this dramatic movie. It knows the audience it’s for, and I can respect that. I’ve seen dancing films that were worse. I’ve seen dancing film that were better, and I’ve seen dancing films that were just plain boring. Though Center Stage may not appeal to the lot of you, I must admit, it’s really fun to watch. Hey, sometimes you just need that mindless entertainment that will make you smile.
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Amanda Schull, Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky, Susan May Pratt, Peter Gallagher, Shakiem Evans, and Zoe Saldana