Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:54 - Released 5/12/00

The long legs. The tight buns. The leotards, the graceful moves, and the pretentious conceit. It all came flooding back to me, folks, like a toe-shoed nightmare from my days as a theatre student. Nicholas Hytner's Center Stage evokes the whole petty atmosphere, and with a surprising sense of heart that rises above the mediocre script penned by Carol Heikkinen. Hytner's previous output includes titles like The Madness Of King George and The Crucible; he had so much more to work with in those films, but his ability to get his characters to interact is bigger than the text. There are several real professional dancers making their debut film performances in Center Stage; it's obvious these people can dance. Some can actually act.

We learn during the film's opening that there will only be 12 dancers selected from the huge number auditioning to become students at the American Ballet Academy, the most prestigious New York ballet school and the pool from which the American Ballet Company fills its ranks. We also learn that although Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) has insufficient turnout and "bad feet," whatever that means, she has the stage presence that can occasionally allow a performer to overcome what he or she lacks in technique. She is accepted based on this, but soon discovers that the classes are demanding (duh) and the instructors brutal. She gets acquainted with her roomates: Eva (Zoe Saldana) is a girl with plenty of talent but an attitude problem, and Maureen (Susan May Pratt) is a bulimic prima donna who is the darling of the class, but has no social life because of her pushy stage mother.

When she all but flunks out of school, Jody is "discovered" (that is, slept with) by the male star of the company, Cooper Nielson (renowned dancer Ethan Stiefel). With his help, and the support of her other male friend (Sascha Radetsky), she is able to learn to forget technique and dance from the heart. Like I said, it's a pretty run-of-the-mill script. The dancing is, admittedly, amazing, and the acting is surprisingly good for a cast of freshmen. Hawaiian-born Schull possesses exactly the type of charisma spoken of about her, and Stiefel and Radetsky are both master technicians. Interestingly, Radetsky is an actual member of the American Ballet Theatre, and he is the least convincing actor; his chemistry with Schull is nonexistent. A surprising appearance as another member of the class is made by Russian Olympic skater Ilia Kulik — fans will remember him from the 1998 winter games in Nagano, Japan, where he won the gold.

Center Stage is an unlikely story whose execution defies its plot. Some may see it as a ballet version of Fame, others will see shades of Flashdance or Dirty Dancing, and there are times when the script is truly appalling (if any ballet instructor ever said "pull those ribs in," I don't want to know). But good directing and great dancing save it from itself more than once. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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