Center Stage

February 1, 2013

Ethan Stiefel and Amanda Schull in Columbia Pictures’ Center Stage.
Photo by Barry Wetcher

Off-center Film

Center Stage

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed by Harris Green

If Columbia Pictures had been as conscientious as those producers of TV shows and comic books who regularly admonish their young audience, “Kids, don’t try this at home,” Center Stage would have had almost as many subtitles as a foreign movie. “Students, don’t try this in class!” for instance, would have accompanied the scene in which one of its three heroines, Eva (Zoë Saldana), slouches in late for the barre at the “American Ballet Company” school in New York City. Chewing gum, wearing her hair loose, and in casual aerobics attire, she couldn’t be more coolly insolent.

Eva is one of a trio of students?the others are her roommates Jody (San Francisco Ballet corps dancer Amanda Schull) and Maureen (Susan May Pratt)?who hope to be among the women chosen to join ABC’s corps at the end of the term. The grinding routine of class that occupies so much of a dancer’s life must have struck the writer, Carol Heikkinen, as woefully undramatic if she considered Eva’s behavior necessary, much less believable. Even someone who had taken only a correspondence course in ballet wouldn’t have entered a classroom in that manner.

Similar unreality pervades Heikkinen’s notion that a student would defy a famous dancer-choreographer who is making a ballet on him. Charlie (American Ballet Theatre corps member Sascha Radetsky) has been honored with a starring role in a new piece for the school workshop, to be choreographed by ABC superstar Cooper (ABT superstar Ethan Stiefel). Because they are rivals for the affections of Jody, however, Charlie, who has a good tour en l’air, defiantly inserts virtuoso steps of his own devising, then stands back to see what Cooper can do. (“Guys, don’t ever try this with a choreographer?particularly if you’re only a student and he’s a virtuoso.”) Stiefel looks precise and buoyant partnering Julie Kent in pas de deux from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, but after Cooper accepts Charlie’s challenge, he has the rare opportunity to set his own boundaries. He promptly unleashes what may well be the most exhilarating fifteen seconds of male virtuosity ever captured on film.

Cooper’s school ballet could have used a few boundaries to remain in the realm of workshop productions. Its actual choreographer, Broadway’s Susan Stroman, wanted something along the lines of a Gene Kelly-style crossover extravaganza for MGM, and she succeeded all too well: Cooper, a last-minute replacement for an injured student, enters riding a Harley-Davidson Wideglide; scenery changes with an instant fluidity rare in student productions; Cooper and Jody make love onstage. (“Dance schools?don’t even think about it!”)

Director Nicholas Hytner gets acceptable performances from his fledgling actors, particularly Radetsky, who already has the appeal of a teen icon. Whenever possible, Hytner grounds Center Stage in something approaching reality, with documentary-style montages of sore feet and battered pointe shoes and some touristy shots of New York City, like a Circle Line boat ride around Manhattan. Eventually, though, Heikkinen’s script will always inject a note of contrivance. The three roommates just happen to be the only women accepted by ABC. (Surprised?) Maureen, driven to bulimia by a domineering mother who must have her daughter become a ballerina, seems all too believable?until you realize that she’s a native New Yorker and would be living at home, not in a dorm. Need I add that Eva, at the last minute, triumphantly steps into another workshop ballet?a sly parody, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon?without benefit of rehearsal? Can’t you guess that Jody, hitherto an intermittent klutz, will conclude Cooper’s ballet with a flurry of fouettés? (Unlike Stiefel in his sunburst of virtuosity, Schull is assisted in this feat by film editor Tariq Anwar.)

Reportedly, Hytner has long wished to make a film about the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. This movie, aimed like a bazooka at the teenagers who flocked to Titanic, is intended to convince Hollywood that ballet can be box office. Whether or not it makes port with the general public, Center Stage is going to strike anyone who knows dance and respects dancers as a leaky tub, indeed.

See feature story in April’s Dance Magazine, pg. 64.