Main Cast: Amanda Schull, Ethan Stiefel
Director: Nicholas Hytner
I’m in the final throes of rehearsal for my fantastic new holiday special, the live musical mash up West Side
Christmas Story which is soon to become a national treasure. I can just see families all over middle America gathered around their televisions, rapt in attention as Riff sings Cool in the snow and gets his tongue stuck to a flagpole. Of course, that move does limit his choreography for the end of the number and it’s kind of hard for him to hit the high note at the end but there’s some really inventive staging for the firetruck with a sort of aerial ballet for the hoses and the extension ladders.
The producers arranged for us to have a balloon and float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to drum up interest. The balloon was of me in my Act II I Feel Pretty tuxedo halter top and tap pants, but something happened during inflation the night before and it broke moorings. A stray gust of wind caught it, carried out over Central Park West and it was last seen heading for Nova Scotia. The float was supposed to be there in time for the early morning start, but the driver took a wrong turn out of the warehouse in Passaic and mistook the trailer of an empty semi for the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. Never one for bending in the face of adversity, I bravely tapped my way down the avenue, but they seem to have cut away to a commercial when I passed the reviewing stand.
I returned to my room at the Essex House to soak my feet (tapping down three miles of asphalt make Epsom salts a necessity) and while there, I decided to spend some time with a film which deals with the trials and tribulations of the world of the dance. Fortunately, I was able to find the 2000 film Center Stage on one of the more obscure streaming networks. I remembered hearing about the film at the time (and there was talk of me playing a student teacher in the film, but I told my people to turn it down as there were no tap numbers) but I had never had a chance to see it, so I ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio from room service, called Normy to wish him a good night, and settled in to enjoy.
Center Stage is one of those ‘young people coming to New York to achieve their dreams in the performing arts’ films that surfaces every few years. This time, it’s the world of ballet and our setting is the fictitious American Ballet Academy set in the very real Lincoln Center. Our plucky heroine is Jody (Amanda Schull), an aspiring ballerina who is accepted to the prestigious academy despite not having a good turn out and a certain imperfection in her movements. Once enrolled, she pals up with other aspiring students including the chip on her shoulder Eva (Zoe Saldana), the unhappy and bulimic Maureen (Susan May Pratt), the athletic Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), the queeny Erik (Shakiem Evens) and the laid-back Sergei (Ilia Kulik). As they work their way through their tour jetes, pas de bourees, and intrachool romances, their teachers are involved in problems of their own. The head of the school, Jonathan (Peter Gallagher) is stuffy and hidebound in classical ballet tradition. He is in a rivalry with Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), a younger danseur who wants his own company where he can be more innovative. It doesn’t help that Cooper’s girlfriend, prima ballerina Kathleen (Julie Kent) left him to marry Jonathan. Everything leads up to the big spring showcase where the students get to strut their stuff for the ballet world and learn who will be hired for a company and who will not. Will there be a last-minute star making substitution? Will our heroine end up with the right boyfriend? Will the character who is dancing for her mother’s ambition tell her mother off and find happiness in her own way? For the answer to these and other questions, see every other film of this type that’s ever been made.
There’s a lot of talent in Center Stage, both in front of and behind the camera. Nicholas Hytner, the acclaimed theater director, directed. He’s made other films such as The History Boys, The Object of My Affection, and The Madness of King George. While his filmography is distinguished, all his projects tend to have a certain flatness. He tends to treat his sets as theatrical settings and the camera as the proscenium arch and there’s not a lot of fluidity. It serves the film well when he’s shooting the ballet sequences. We actually get to watch excellent dancers dance, rather than a lot of quick cuts and body doubles. It doesn’t work as well when the film ventures off campus and into the students’ personal lives. The film is also not well served by Carol Heikkinen’s script which is littered with cliché’s stolen from other movies. There are moments straight out of Fame, The Turning Point, and even Flashdance.
The dancing, however, is terrific. Amanda Schull was a professional ballerina dancing with San Francisco Ballet when she was cast and is completely believable as an advanced student with a style of her own. (True to form in these films, her weaknesses become strengths when she is paired with the right partners in the right project). She isn’t the world’s greatest actress, but she isn’t asked to do anything terribly complicated. She is partnered by both Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky, both well-known lead dancers in the ballet world and when they are allowed to cut loose, it’s really a treat. The two guys are lovely to look at, but neither one will ever garner an Oscar nomination. The true find of the film was the young Zoe Saldana. Over the last fifteen years or so, she’s become a Hollywood leading lady with films such as Avatar and The Guardians of the Galaxy, but this was her first major project. She was a trained dancer (and it shows) and her Eva, tough and vulnerable, who truly wants to succeed in the ballet world, but on her own terms, walks away with every scene she’s in. She’s so good, it almost throws the film off balance.
The other fun piece of Center Stage is picking out the well-known New York stage actors in small parts. You can spot Maryann Plunkett, Priscilla Lopez, Donna Murphy and Debra Monk amongst others. They’re all fine with what little they have to do. Donna Murphy as a stern ballet mistress has the showiest role, but doesn’t make a huge impression. The weakest link in the ‘adult’ cast is Peter Gallagher. There’s nothing about his physicality that suggests he has any abilities in dance or ballet. They should have found an older dancer for the role.
Ultimately, Center Stage is inoffensive. It’s utterly predictable in terms of the plot twists, it has some great ballet dancing (but not so much as to get boring), and it’s got an attractive cast. It’s not a great movie, not even a good movie, but it’s fun and moves along at a decent clip and may lead the youngsters to want to explore the world of ballet further.
Dorm smoking. Fruit tarts. Gratuitous bowling. Repeated pointe shoe abuse. Motorcycle riding – onstage and off. Mirror work. Concerned parents. Oblivious parents. Last minute substitutions.
photo by Ben+Sam