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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 14.29%
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Sucks: 7.14%

3 reviews, 52 user ratings

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Center Stage
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by Jack Sommersby

"Dances Circles Around Its Familiarities"
5 stars

Dance students trying to "make it" -- and in The Big Apple, no less! I know at first glance a film like this seems like nothing to get out of bed over, but that just makes its numerous, bountiful successes all the more enjoyable to behold. One of 2000's best films.

I must admit to not having a particular affinity for ballet. In fact, the only feature film I even remotely enjoyed watching that involved it was the 1992 slapstick comedy Brain Donors, which took quite the disdainful attitude toward it with a series of uproarious, no-mercy gags. Of course, flat-chested/anorexic women and homosexual men with their bulges proudly pronounced are the two prevailing stereotypes of these dancers, even though a fool can clearly see all of the dedication and hard work that goes into ballet. Center Stage presents the trials and tribulations undergone by a group of first-year students hoping to qualify for the semester's final workshop, where ballet companies from all across the country attend to recruit the best from the best. The setting is the fictional American Ballet Academy in New York, and the main character is Jody Sawyer (played by the enchanting Amanda Schull), who serves as our eyes and ears, taking in all of the talent, egos, and politics that make up this unique world. Yes, the prospect of sitting through "another dance film" might not seem like the most tantalizing invite in the world, yet one of the chief pleasures of the cinema is being taken by surprise at the fascination a seemingly unappealing film can turn out to hold. But for those (like me) who found Alan Parker's 1982 Juilliard-set drama Fame a feverishly overstated crock, please rest assured that Center Stage is quite the opposite: you're given the aesthetic distance to get your own take on things and immensely enjoy yourself while doing so. It makes for a relaxed and smooth filmgoing experience, populated by talented performers playing interesting characters who make dramatic sense. And the fact that the dance numbers are simply glorious doesn't hurt matters, either.

The characters admittedly run to type, but they're fleshed out and maturely developed. There's the heroine, Jody, and her two roommates, Eva (Zoe Saldana), a girl with some serious attitude toward authority, and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a goody-goody who's been at the academy for three years and whose mother keeps her on a very short leash. There's a decent young man from Seattle, Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), and a Russian, Sergei (Ilia Kulik), who's perplexed why New York women aren't turned on by his, well, being a Russian. They're all an amiable sort, never kidding themselves that, deep down, they're terrified of not being one of the three boys and three girls invited to join the company at the end of the semester. The way the artistic director, Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), spells it out, being talented simply isn't enough -- if the students weren't talented, they wouldn't be there. What's needed is that rare combination of imagination and technique, which is hard for the students to grasp because just knowing the dance steps by rote isn't enough, and neither is being spontaneous without the discipline to support it. (Example: Jonathan gently instructs, "How can you expect people to watch you raise your arm if you don't do it gracefully?") Anyone who's gone through an extensive artistic workshop -- whether it be for drama, dance, or music -- will be able to identify on a fundamental level, yet it's nothing short of a living hell for these pupils in particular who've staked their entire futures on coming out on top. And, interestingly, even if they do "make it", it might result in nothing more glorious than providing support for the main stars in the school's future stock-company productions, so the chances of making it as a lead dancer are even more slim, and the trek towards that goal considerably more arduous.

Director Nicholas Hytner, whose stage-to-screen adaptations of The Madness of King George and The Crucible were rather laborious and clunky (though he deserves credit for getting something resembling a performance out of Jennifer Aniston in the otherwise-pedestrian Picture Perfect), demonstrates a newfound assuredness here. Working in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio for the first time, Hytner lends considerable compositional variety as well as a sense of pace; whether it's a series of talking-heads scenes or dance sequences, there's a fluidity and (more importantly) an invisibility to his technique -- you feel you're being effortlessly led through a story by a master guide without any obtrusiveness calling attention to the effort. The camerabatics aren't particularly dynamic, and they don't need to be, because Hytner displays an instinctively sound film sense indicative of an artist who appreciates the dynamics already built into the material; the angst amongst the students and the excellence of the dance numbers aptly communicate tension and exude excitement, so the camera need merely act as an observer to the action rather than as an instigator of it. But while the film wasn't based on a stage play, considering its small scope and limited settings, staginess could have easily seeped in and settled into the proceedings; luckily, Hytner and Oscar-nominated editor Tariq Anwar bring an adroitness to the scene transitions that's actually quite remarkable. Working in widescreen can mislead some directors into mistakenly equating horizontal scope with rich visual depth, and given the traps Hytner could have fallen into given the plentiful scenes of several dancers auditioning and training in single rooms, it's amazing the variety of the blocking and juxtaposing. Like the virtuoso dancers the characters aspire to be, this is a film that's luxuriously graceful in its moment-by-moment adeptness.

The screenplay by Carol Heikkinen isn't exactly bursting with innovation -- as successfully as it makes familiars play out interestingly, the story is still locked into a familiar narrative and dramatic structure -- but it doesn't go soft in certain areas that most films of this type ordinarily would. When a student is insistently encouraged by her instructors to "see the nutritionist" to deal with her unideal weight and is subsequently compelled to leave the school, the film is refreshingly unapologetic in addressing this -- she isn't invited back by an instructor who's implausibly had a change of heart. It also serves as a fairly affecting commentary on the issue of parents using their children to live out dreams they themselves failed to realize or accomplish when younger. The love story involving the heroine and the school's premiere student, the snotty Cooper Nielson (Ethan Stiefel), wouldn't be half as affecting as it is if Cooper had been transformed into a nice guy by film's end -- he's still a bastard, but one who's learned to be a bit more compassionate in going about it. (Stiefel, a real-life professional dancer since the age of eight who landed the position of Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet in 1995, moves with a reptilian grace and acts with the devilish relish of a young Mickey Rourke.) And, in the best touch, Jonathan isn't incorporated into the story to serve as some kind of fairy godfather for the heroine: he's as resentful of her refusal to pay him the respect he knows he deserves as she is of his coldly impersonal manner with his students. (Gallagher, who gave an outstanding, star-making performance as Claire Danes' grieved father in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, gives Jonathan a quiet dignity that underscores the character's unsatiable quest for perfectionism.)

The choreography by Susan Stroman is spectacular and imaginative and, as complex as it is, never comes off as overprepared or fussy, as opposed to, say, that of Twyla Tharp's work in Milos Forman's Hair and Taylor Hackford's White Nights. Hytner, who came to film after an award-winning career in London as the musical director of Carousel and Miss Saigon, knows not to overedit the numbers and engage in numerous close-ups, which can just kill their flow; having cast professional dancers in the principal roles, he afforded himself the leeway to concentrate on the numbers themselves rather than on camouflaging the limitations brought on by the usage of non-professionals. In addition to being dazzlingly choreographed, the numbers are also expressively reflective of the characters and are each distinctive in emotional tone. In the Swan Lake number, there's a genuine pleasure in watching the rebellious Eva keeping in-sync with the others for the good of the show and sublimating her instinct to show off. When Jody, who is technically assured yet lacking a certain spontaneity, goes to an off-campus Broadway dance studio that instructs its students to hard-pounding pop music, you can feel her exhilaration at overcoming her stiffness. (It's little wonder that Cooper, who's also in attendance, chooses this as an opportune time to seduce her.) And in the sexy, dynamic final number at the Academy's workshop scored to Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel", Cooper and Charlie (who loves Jody but loathes Cooper) vie for Jody's affections, with her lying on a huge platform bed, Cooper riding onstage on a motorcycle, and Charlie valiantly trying to come between the two. You might feel like dancing yourself while watching this -- it's that damn exciting.

As flat-out excellent as Center Stage is, though, it's largely gone undervalued, and that's mostly because it's been priggishly dismissed as being far from original. Yet it manages to dance circles around so many of its predecessors that it seems to me that, while it took a while, here is a film that finally got it right straight across the board. Herbert Ross' 1977 The Turning Point was a multiple-Oscar nominee, yes, but it still remains an unbearably unctuous big-screen soap opera. Bob Fosse's 1979 All That Jazz boasts extraordinary editing and dazzling dance numbers, but it's also maddeningly self-indulgent and uneven. Adrian Lyne's 1983 Flashdance is admittedly appealing, but both its story and character sense are decidedly lacking. And so on. No, Center Stage isn't perfect -- the gruesome Debra Monk is her usual overacting/abrasive self as the overcontrolling mother; and Hytner commits a noticeable misstep in the final number by abruptly changing sets without a proper transition allowing the audience to see how the change was made, so we're momentarily reminded that we're watching a film -- but it manages to get maximum results from such a presumably minimal story that it simply doesn't matter if it's familiar on the surface. It works, works consistently, and gives off the same kind of filmgoing high emitted during the opening-credits musical-number sequence scored to Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" in Tommy O'Haver's Get Over It (also undervalued). The filmmakers here certainly get the details down right (slippers pounded on the ground for proper shaping; bloody toes; weariness of selecting too much in the cafeteria line), but they also get the emotions down right without overstepping into Overly Maudlin territory. Yes, Center Stage is familiar; it's also a lovely cinematic achievement.

@ Jack Sommersby, 2004

If Eminem can unwarrantly garner widespread critical praise for his dour performance in the dreadful "8 Mile", then surely the real-life dancers who manage to give agreeable, solid performances here should be crowned and revered. This is especially true of Amanda Schull, who's like a less-anal-retentive Julia Stiles (though lacking Stiles' awesome derriere, admittedly).

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=3863&reviewer=327
originally posted: 06/11/04 12:27:46
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User Comments

3/22/09 Dane Youssef Timeless truths about the ballet word. Stellar dance. Now THIS is the world of BALLET. 5 stars
9/04/08 Rachel The dialogue is terrible but the dancing more than makes up for it. 5 stars
9/03/08 Nikki I've watched this on the spanish channel just to see the dancing! 4 stars
11/01/06 kirrily i absolutly love centre stage... its one of my favorate movies... I am australian...woohoo 5 stars
10/16/04 Sarah This was an awesome movie, i live dancing n it had my favorite movie theme added to what do 5 stars
10/07/04 random* stereotypical afterschool special- yawn- great dancing though 3 stars
6/18/04 Denise Duspiva okay 3 stars
6/14/04 Daveman Leave this after school special alone and watch Fame instead. 1 stars
4/08/04 Bex really cool 5 stars
3/06/04 Reza I Love This Film anddancers in film 5 stars
2/13/04 jackie i love it 5 stars
1/21/04 Kristina I love this movie soo much! It is my fav movie and I can't get enough of it 5 stars
1/15/04 ophylia777 so what if they can't act I can't dance like that 5 stars
12/11/03 Cast: 2 reviews, 39 ratings Cast: 2 reviews, 39 ratings 5 stars
12/03/03 krystal gully it is my favourite movie of all time in fact i feel like watching it right now 5 stars
8/07/03 Sugarfoot ABSOLUATELY HORRID! 1 stars
7/30/03 nr great 5 stars
7/29/03 Abby It Is the Best Movie Rock On Makes Me Wanna Dance and i know every move/dance and every li 5 stars
7/27/03 miss miss it is the best movie ever i bought and i watch it 7 times a day 5 stars
6/17/03 Erin LOVE IT!!! I took dance for a couple years when I was young. Now I wish I never stopped!!! 5 stars
4/10/03 Jack Sommersby A mammothly entertaining pic. The dancing and acting are great! A classic. 5 stars
8/14/02 MI It was great; the dance scenes showed pure power of music. 5 stars
2/27/02 AgentDS It's worth seeing just for the -amazing- dance at the end. 4 stars
2/07/02 Andrea I loved it!!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm a ballernia!! 5 stars
10/19/01 Shauna It was awesome 5 stars
9/20/01 Viviana I enjoyed everything about the movie, and you would too if you appreciated art! 5 stars
9/09/01 Travis I LOVE THIS MOVIE 5 stars
9/01/01 Jadie SOOOOOO brillian - love the choregraphy, dancing n music, and wow!! Sascha Radetsky!!!!!! 5 stars
7/14/01 kobrichka Plot,acting,dancing,choreography - no comment. Shit, don't waste your time with that movie. 1 stars
6/30/01 ***Super Girl*** everything in this movie sucked, the acting, dancing, the fucking PLOT that didn't exist!!! 1 stars
4/06/01 Hanna Morrison this was a great movie, i enjoyed it, because i do ballet myself 5 stars
1/21/01 Ai Nine year old wrote, directed and produced this film. The dialogue couldn't be lamer. 1 stars
1/13/01 Kat Sascha Radetsky is mad hot~!! 5 stars
12/07/00 janell it was the best dance flim ever i would give it a 20 on a 1-10 scale it was great 5 stars
11/28/00 Jessica This movie was awesome. I liked that it showed dancing was tough! Im a dancer 5 stars
11/23/00 Erin I am obssesed with this movie!!!i love charlie!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
11/20/00 Lindsay Scott IT ROCKED...especially charlie 5 stars
11/15/00 MiS^DeMeAnOr I liked it, the ending was a bit far fetched 4 stars
11/12/00 Andrea I love this movie! I could watch it over and over! It made me feel like I was actually them 5 stars
10/23/00 PoOh#7 pretty good beter at the end 4 stars
10/06/00 Menolly I love this movie so much! I have seen it twice, and I am waiting the video :). 5 stars
9/28/00 Theresa Thoughly enjoyed it!!! Well done to all the dancers. 5 stars
8/04/00 Megan Hunter I think this was a great movie with an excellant cast. I think the dancing was great too. 5 stars
6/06/00 Whata Watch this one when you don't want to think you just want to enjoy a movie 4 stars
5/30/00 jess it is the best movie i have ever seen it reminded me of dirty dancing 5 stars
5/24/00 Lyndsay Green I really enjoyed the movie, I have seen it twice. 4 stars
5/18/00 Charles Predictable; better filmed ballet than usual for Hollywood 4 stars
5/15/00 Justine Briggs I think that young girls will really enjoy this. 4 stars
5/14/00 Junko Suwa I wanted to see Ilia Kulik (as Sergei) much much more, especially his modern ballet. 5 stars
5/14/00 Joe Smaltz The plot was predictable, but I went for the dancing, Which was awsume, so I enjoyed it. 4 stars
5/12/00 Kristen I loved It. For ballet dancers the teachers and the students sure act well. 5 stars
5/06/00 Klute. More fun than I expected. 4 stars
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  12-May-2000 (PG-13)


  14-Sep-2000 (M)

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