Whether you first watched it in a theater two decades ago or on Netflix last week, odds are you feel a deep connection to Center Stage. The cult classic, which premiered May 12, 2000, is arguably the greatest dance film ever made. (Dance obsessives might take issue with the "cult" before "classic," not to mention the "dance" before "film.") Jody Sawyer's ballet journey—which combines oh-wow-I've-had-those-blisters realism with wait-does-she-have-magic-color-changing-pointe-shoes fantasy—stands the test of time, early-aughts fashion be darned. We've memorized its highly quotable lines, laughed with (and, gently, at) its heroes, and been inspired by its sincere love of dance and dancers.
To celebrate Center Stage's 20th anniversary, our friends at Dance Spirit asked five of its dance stars to talk through their memories of the filming process. Here are their stories of on-set bonding, post-puke kissing scenes, and life imitating art imitating life.
Real-life besties Sascha Radetsky (left) and Ethan Stiefel—aka Charlie and Cooper—reminiscing on Center Stage, 20 years later (Photo by Joe Carrotta)
On the Audition Process
Ethan Stiefel (Cooper Nielson): I walked into the American Ballet Theatre studios at 890 Broadway one day, and I had one of those yellow slips in my mail cubbyhole that just said, "Laurence Mark. Columbia Pictures. Please call." Out of nowhere. And I called, and Larry—one of the film's producers—answered directly. He was super-knowledgeable about dance, and had seen me perform a couple of times. He was a fan. He said Columbia was working on a dance film, and he thought I'd be a good fit for it. I was a little taken aback—there aren't that many dance movies made, period—but of course I was interested. I mean, what an opportunity.
Sascha Radetsky (Charlie): Ethan and I were buddies from way back. We met when we were kids at a summer intensive—I was 11 and he was 15, I think? But we ended up in ABT together. And I remember in maybe January of 1999, Ethan saying, "Oh, yeah, I'm doing this movie." It sounded like it was written for him.
Erin Baiano (American Ballet Academy student): Yeah, I heard the whole thing was a star vehicle for Ethan.
Stiefel: I didn't hear that!
Julie Kent (Kathleen Donahue): I remember Ethan mentioning to me, when we were doing a guest appearance in Japan, that he had just been to California to meet with a director about a possible film. It all sounded exciting, but kind of vague. And then, some months later, he said that they wanted me to read for a part.
Amanda Schull (Jody Sawyer): For me, it was a bit of a life-imitating-art situation. I was in my last year at San Francisco Ballet School, and we were rehearsing for our end-of-year showcase, which was an opportunity for Helgi [Tomasson, SFB's artistic director] and other company directors to see us perform. Helgi's assistant came into a rehearsal and whispered something to the choreographer of the piece, who had a very dry sense of humor—she said something like, "We're going to have a fancy Hollywood producer watching us today." I immediately perked up. I happened to have one of the leads in this ballet, and I turned it ON. At the end, Helgi's assistant gave me a script—my hamming it up had caught the producer's attention. The next day, I read my scenes for the producer between rehearsals, while I was beet-red and sweaty. I was reading for Jody and Maureen, but I said to the producer, "You know, I actually like the Jody role more." How totally embarrassing, in hindsight! But I found out later that afterward, the producer had called the casting director and said, "I found Jody Sawyer."
Amanda Schull with director Nicholas Hytner (courtesy Schull)
Baiano: I had just left my job at ABT, so I had nothing but time on my hands. Someone from casting called me and asked me to audition, I don't remember how exactly. They actually gave me sides for Jody first, and then they called me back for Emily a few weeks later. But some of my friends read for Eva, and some of the other parts. I felt like everybody I knew had auditioned—all of ABT, all of New York City Ballet.
Radetsky: My role was originally written for [then–ABT star, now–Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director] Angel Corella. It was supposed to be Carlos, not Charlie. Which shows you that the writer really knew dance, as did the director and the producer, because Angel's brilliant. And I didn't read for Carlos originally—I read for the Russian guy, Ilia Kulik's part. I did terribly.
Stiefel: Sascha was a seasoned actor at that point. He did commercials and film as a kid.
Radetsky: He loves reminding people about that. Yeah, it's out there on the internet somewhere. I did a movie called Home at Last—it was Adrien Brody's first film.
Stiefel: He went from working with Adrien Brody to working with me, poor guy.
Radetsky: I only work with the legends. [Laughs.] But anyway, midway through ABT's Metropolitan Opera House season that summer, Angel blew out his ankle, so he couldn't do the film. I think initially the team still wanted to keep it as Carlos. They brought in [then–ABT soloist and later NYCB principal] Joaquin de Luz to read.
Schull: Later in the audition process they flew me out to NYC for some screen tests, and I remember they were auditioning Joaquin for the Charlie part at the same time. He invited me to go watch ABT from the wings one night, to see Ethan dance. I remember thinking: Even if this is the end of my journey with this movie, how lucky am I?
Radetsky: They were also auditioning [then–NYCB dancer, now–L.A. Dance Project director] Benjamin Millepied for the Charlie/Carlos part. What would be the French for Charles? Char-LEE? Anyway, it was written for these other incredible dancers, and then by a twist of fortune, I ended up with the gig.
Kent: I don't remember what scene I did for the Kathleen audition. But I do remember talking to Nicholas [Hytner, the film's director] at the audition about why he wanted to do this movie. I loved his films, and I knew about his career as theater director in London—but it seemed like a total left turn for him to be making a teen-flick ballet movie. And he said he loved the art form, and the film company had done all this research, and they really felt that this movie was going to speak to an audience of teenage girls and their moms—this was going to be very impactful for a whole generation. Clearly, that was true!
Schull (center) in the now-iconic Center Stage foutté sequence (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
On the First Days On Set, and Adjusting to Acting
Schull: Before filming began, we rehearsed the jazz number in New York with [choreographer] Susan Stroman and her wonderful assistants, and the ballet numbers. They put me up in an apartment near Lincoln Center. I felt very glamorous.
Stiefel: Stroman was directing [Tony-award–winning musical] Contact at that point, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, and so we had some of our rehearsals there.
Schull: The guys were still in season at ABT at the beginning of the rehearsal period, so I started on my own at first. And thank goodness, because I was nowhere near as quick a learner or strong a dancer as Ethan and Sascha. Once they joined the rehearsals, I remember being shocked at how fast they learned everything. It was nothing to them to pick up these ballets. Also, seeing Ethan's feet up close for the first time—I was totally gobsmacked.
Stiefel: Stroman was brilliant, choreographing the Cooper Nielson ballet. She'd never really worked with ballet dancers before, but she had a great handle on the structure and a sense of the feeling she wanted for each passage. Then she'd allow us the freedom to suggest things—"Is there something specific you can think of for this spot?" I'm also pretty sure the motorcycle didn't exist in the Cooper ballet until I was cast. [Stiefel is, famously, a motorcycle enthusiast.]
Schull and Stiefel filming the motorcycle scene (courtesy Schull)
Kent: I didn't have as much preparation to do as some of the other dancers. But my first real day of filming was the biggest, hardest scene for me! It was the moment in the theater, during the gala, when I have to tell Cooper "That's called acting." I walked in, boom, they shot it. I remember being thankful that it was a scene with Ethan. We'd been characters together onstage many times before, so there was already a level of trust there. I didn't have the same kind of nerves with him as I did with, say, Peter Gallagher [who plays company director Jonathan Reeves]—a big movie star that I met in the makeup trailer, and then we had to step on set and play husband and wife. Although Peter couldn't have been nicer.
Stiefel: Some of us definitely got thrown in the deep end. The first scene I shot with Amanda was the love scene at Cooper's apartment. Maybe the thought was that, not really knowing each other, we'd have a certain energy or tension. But I'd have to imagine those first takes weren't very pretty, day one, shot one. We ended up reshooting the scene, like, a month later.
Radetsky: My first day was the scene on the boat, the Circle Line Cruise. My alarm didn't go off, and they were starting shooting at 6 am. I was late, my first day. So already I was mortified. We went out on the boat, and we were supposed to do a kissing scene between me and Amanda. And poor Amanda gets motion sickness.
Schull: They had to keep a pail off-camera for me to barf between takes. And then Sascha had to kiss me! He didn't complain, that sweet man.
Radetsky: I felt terrible—she was just totally nauseated by everything about it. And then the irony was that they ended up jettisoning that whole scene. We reshot it later, without the kissing. It was an interesting indoctrination into the process.
Schull and Radetsky (left) with Shakiem Evans and Victoria Born (aka Erik and Emily) in a scene from the film (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
On the Dance Scenes
Schull: Since I didn't have an acting background, scenes with heavy emotional dialogue made me nervous. But the dance sequences were super-fun to film.
Stiefel: I loved that they chose such sophisticated rep for the movie. How great is [Sir Kenneth] MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet balcony pas? And then George Balanchine's Stars and Stripes has a different sensibility in terms of its virtuosity and accessibility. You had everything from Shakespeare to a motorcycle coming onstage. It was diverse, and it wasn't watered down at all.
Kent: We really didn't adjust the MacMillan choreography at all for the camera. That's one of the things I'm most proud of in that film: how they captured the excerpts from the balcony pas. They got it so well—the choreography and the sense of performance, the set design.
Stiefel: They also filmed the finale from Balanchine's Theme and Variations, with ABT dancers, and me and Julie. And it was never used. I don't think I've ever seen it. Must be in the vault somewhere.
Baiano: They were really smart about scheduling the dance stuff. For the classroom scenes, a lot of the [New York] City Ballet dancers had more time during that period of filming, so you'll see them in the background there. But then they brought in ABT dancers to do "Little Swans," since that was in ABT's rep.
Kent: Filming dance requires a different level of intensity—not just the old "Hurry up and wait," but "Hurry up, wait, and then dance your heart out." It's hard on your body, to produce a high physical level of energy repeatedly, without being warm. But it always seemed like a good mood on set, a lot of really excited young dancers.
Radetsky: We were so psyched just to be there. There was a bit of a learning curve for the crew in terms of filming dance, so I remember some takes where we'd give our best run, and the turns were great, but it'd turn out they were focusing on…the piano. [Laughs.] It didn't matter! We'd go again.
Kent: Filming "She's a heartbeat away from tattooing your name on her…" —well, you can fill in the blank. That scene was funny, partly just because people didn't expect to hear those words coming out of my mouth. That's not really my personality! But you really do secretly talk onstage like that sometimes while you're dancing, so that was fun to shoot. Also, I kept thinking that at the end of Dancers [the 1987 film Kent starred in with Mikhail Baryshnikov], you see me getting a daisy tattoo on my butt cheek. What is it with these ballet movies that tattoos on the bottom is a theme?
Stiefel and Schull dancing in "Cooper's ballet" (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Radetsky: Some of the most fun I had on set was shooting that one-upsmanship scene with Ethan in the studio.
Baiano: What you don't see is that all of the dance extras were in the studio for that dance-off. We were in the background cheering, like "All right!"
Stiefel: Sascha and I really ad-libbed all the dancing there.
Radetsky: Well, let's talk about what actually happened. In the movie, the way it's supposed to go is Cooper does this sequence of jumps in rehearsal and I can't keep up, and then later, in the final performance, I do the whole virtuosic string of steps, like, "I got you now." So, we shot the part on the stage first. You'll see that I do double tour, pirouette, double tour, double tour—it wasn't scripted, it was just, "Whatever you want to do." So that's what I did. And then later we filmed the rehearsal scene, and you'll notice that Ethan goes double tour, double pirouette, double tour, double tour, double tour. I was like "Dude! The continuity is not gonna work!" [Laughs.]
Stiefel: I guess it was a very Cooper thing to do, actually.
Baiano: We have to talk about the jazz class. That is my absolute favorite.
Stiefel: To this day, if people want to poke gentle fun at me, they'll pull out a few moves from that scene, give me a little [does jazz hands]. Susan Stroman choreographed that whole thing, and the dancers there are basically the entire cast of Contact.
Baiano: Warren Carlyle [now a much-lauded Broadway choreographer and director] is in it!
Stiefel: They were full-out and full-on, every take. Actually, Robert Wersinger, he was one of the dancers, and I'd previously danced and been friends with him at New York City Ballet. He's the one who whispers in my ear, "What do you think of that girl?" or "Check her out!" So that was also cool, to have a moment on screen with a friend I hadn't seen for a while.
Schull and Stiefel with the cast in the jazz class scene (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
On the Dynamic Behind the Scenes
Schull: We were all quite close. It was like summer camp. The younger kids spent every weekend together, going over to one person's house or another. I filmed every single day for three months, and I still couldn't get enough of the people I was working with. I turned 21 on the set of the film, and they decorated my trailer with streamers and flowers and gave me a cake, all of it. I don't have anything scandalous or wild to share about that. [Laughs.] I just had the time of my life.
Baiano: The dancers playing students and extras, most of the time, we were really just hanging out in the New York State Theater [now the David H. Koch Theater], which was where a lot of us worked anyway. So there was a weird, unfamiliar moviemaking element, but it was also our home turf, which helped us all get more comfortable.
Schull: The more experienced dancers were incredibly gracious. At the very beginning, Ethan left me a voicemail saying what a good job he thought I was doing. I kept that for a long time. And I became close with Sascha and Stella [Abrera, now an ABT principal and Radetsky's wife].
Baiano: The crew was super-great. All the dancers would work long hours and not be divas about it. We're just used to that, but I think the crew really respected that work ethic, since that's not always the case on films.
Stiefel: The general feeling was that everybody involved really loved dance and wanted us to be successful.
Schull backstage with the camera crew (courtesy Schull)
Schull: Nick [Hytner] was so gentle. He was very gracious and kind. And I realize now, having been in the business longer, that's a luxury you don't always get. I knew the studio really wanted an actor, not a dancer, for Jody, but he made me feel like I belonged there.
Stiefel: Nick had so much patience—he was working with a ton of first-time actors. Whenever we were shooting a difficult scene, he gave great guidance. We were playing characters, but at the same time he wanted to bring out a lot of what was already in us as dancers—that specific posture, how you walk and move. And he's a pretty knowledgeable ballet fan.
Baiano: He was also very deferential to the expertise of the dancers in the room. There was one point where Ilia, who'd never done ballet partnering before, had to do the partnering class scene, and Nick let us just workshop with him for a bit. He gave us the space to do things like that to make it more authentic.
Radetsky: Nick would consult us about the dialogue, and the little details, to make it real—"Would you actually wear that? No? Then get rid of it." You can tell that he's an artist himself by the respect he showed for the art form.
Baiano: It all worked because the people at the top clearly loved ballet, and they were directing a bunch of talented, hard-working artists. If you look at the people playing the students, there are all these dancers who are going to be principals at their companies in, like, five years. Janie Taylor [later a NYCB principal], Rebecca Krohn [later a NYCB principal], Gillian [Murphy, now an ABT principal and Stiefel's wife], Stella—they're all there. Jonathan Stafford [now NYCB's artistic director] and Jared Angle [now a NYCB principal] are the understudies in that Cooper ballet rehearsal scene! To this day, Jared will joke that he has a bone to pick with Cooper-slash-Ethan, because Jared was Erik O. Jones' understudy, and really when Eric got injured, that should've been Jared's big moment. We all really bonded. We're still friends.
Schull and Stiefel filming the dance finale (courtesy Schull)
On Working With Famous—or Soon-to-Be-Famous—Actors
Schull: The nondancers were all lovely to me, and I definitely didn't deserve it, naïve little squirt that I was. Zoe [Saldana, who plays Eva] had some dance training—her port de bras is gorgeous, actually—but she and Susan [May Pratt, who plays Maureen] had absolutely no ego about taking suggestions from the dancers in the cast when it came to making the dance scenes more realistic. Everyone was invested in making it as real as possible, not some Hollywood interpretation of what ballet is.
Kent: Peter Gallagher had clearly done a lot of homework so he could look like he knew what he was doing while leading a ballet class—the mannerisms, that very specific physicality.
Stiefel: Peter was great to work with because he's excellent at what he does, of course, but he was also very supportive and generous. I learned a lot from him, just watching how he went about it, how he would read a scene, the questions he would ask, the craft of it all.
Baiano: What I remember about Peter Gallagher is that he would bum cigarettes from me all the time. Which made me feel really cool. [Laughs.]
Schull on set with dancers (courtesy Schull)
On the Movie's Initial, and Ongoing, Impact
Schull: I did not expect the attention that the film got right off the bat. That was really weird. We wrapped, and I went back to San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice—I wasn't living some glamorous, attention-seeking life. But I remember flying to visit my sister after the film premiered, and getting really motion-sick on the plane, and seeing these teenage girls taking pictures of me throwing up. The guy sitting next to me said, "Are you some kind of a rock star?" And I was like, "No…I'm the girl from that dance movie." [Laughs.]
Baiano: All my friends were in love with Sascha. They were like, "Do you know Charlie?" And I was like, "Oh, yeah, we go way back." [Laughs.] Sascha was in a Mandy Moore music video! Everyone forgets that "I Wanna Be with You" was a Center Stage song.
Radetsky: I mean, there are, like, clips of me playing on a screen while Mandy is singing.
Baiano: No, it's more than that!
[Editor's note: Judge for yourself.]
Stiefel: There was a real buzz in dance when the film came out, because it had been so long since a major studio had done a dance film. White Nights was great, but a totally different flavor. And the diversity of the characters involved was new, too.
Baiano: You get to see a black gay character, finally! It was approaching modern times. Although I do cringe a little today at how inappropriate Cooper's relationship with Jody was, not to mention the cornrow braids in the Cooper ballet, which are, uh, problematic. But it got a lot of other things right. It was part of that wave of great rom-coms from that early-2000s era. All the Freddie Prinze Jr. stuff, and 10 Things I Hate About You—it had that same feeling. To this day, it's still so watchable.
Radetsky: There's some perfect formula it just hit.
Kent: You can spend your whole life as a performing artist, performing all over the world, and that's one thing. But to be preserved in time on film, a film people still watch—that's special in a different way. I remember, when 9/11 happened, about a year after the movie came out, ABT was on tour, I think in Kansas City. We had to drive across the country to San Diego, because all the flights were grounded. We were at a rest stop in Colorado somewhere and the waitress came over and said, "Oh, the people at the counter have taken care of your lunch. They recognize you from the movies."
Stiefel, Schull, and Radetsky in the finale of "Cooper's ballet" (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Radetsky: I still get recognized sometimes. It'll be the last people you expect—a TSA screener, or a bagger at Whole Foods. The garbage man, once. Who knew he'd be into ballet? Dance moms recognize me a lot, still. Back in the day it was younger dancers; now it's dance moms.
Stiefel: Right after the movie came out, it was funny—people would just yell "Cooper!" at me from across the street. And I guess now some younger kids know me from the other Center Stage movies, in which you get to see Cooper age somewhat. The last time we saw him, he was getting a lifetime achievement award.
Radetsky: I was there to see you get that award, in Center Stage: On Pointe!
Baiano: People are still talking about this movie, which is crazy. It's been fun to see the Center Stage tributes come out every so often. The best one was for the 15th anniversary, I think, when Entertainment Weekly did a story about why Center Stage is the greatest dance movie ever made. It's magical. It hits on all the weirdnesses of those early-aughts fashions, and the fact that in the final dance scene Amanda is a hair witch.
Stiefel: I still have a Center Stage keychain somewhere. And a poster. And, I think, a sweatshirt?
Radetsky: Stella still wears that sweatshirt for class.
Schull: When we were making Center Stage, nobody involved thought about it as a silly teen dance movie, and you can tell. I think that's why people love it so much. Women still tell me that the reason they started ballet was because of the movie, or that they have a ritual where they watch it with their girlfriends, or that their dance school has movie nights dedicated to it.
Kent: It really did shape a whole generation of young dancers. I feel very lucky to have been a part of that.
Schull: It's also evident, as you watch it, that we had a lot of fun on that set. Now, having been on the acting side of things for more than a decade, I can sniff out when people are faking a good friendship for the camera. But we genuinely did care for each other.
Stiefel: We need to do more reunions.
(From left) Stiefel, Radetsky, and Erin Baiano at their mini Center Stage reunion (photo by Joe Carrotta)