Center Stage

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

May 10, 2000 at 4:00 am
When asked to name the most erotic sequence they have ever seen in a film, people tend to pick moments like the love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now or that indelible image of Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, standing just inside her house, silently daring poor, dumb William Hurt to break down the patio door and grab her. For me, however, nothing comes close to matching the image of dancer Cyd Charisse, wrapped in a tight red dress, slinking over to Fred Astaire and planting herself in his arms in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon -- or extending her million-dollar leg skyward and placing it on the shoulder of a wide-eyed Gene Kelly in the "Broadway Ballet" number in Singin' in the Rain. You can almost hear the film strip sizzle as it passes through the projector.

Dance -- be it ballet, jazz, ballroom or musical theater -- is in many ways the most erotically charged art form. In a sense it's extended foreplay, as bodies bend seductively into one another, separating only so that they may reunite in even more intimate embrace. Functioning as both narrative and metaphor, dance is a story told through movement.

Though a handful of popular screen melodramas have featured dancing (Fame, Flashdance, Dirty Dancing and Footloose spring to mind), Center Stage is the first (at least, the first major studio release) since The Turning Point in 1977 to be set in the world of ballet. The Turning Point, which introduced American audiences to Mikhail Baryshnikov, started a ballet craze. Thousands of young girls hung up their roller skates in favor of toe shoes, captivated by the sheer beauty of the dance steps and the grace that Baryshnikov and ballerina Leslie Browne brought to them (to say nothing of the love affair between their two characters). Though Center Stage doesn't offer quite the same dewy-eyed romantic appeal as that earlier movie, dance schools across the country should expect a notable increase in enrollment in the months after Center Stage opens.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George, The Crucible, The Object of My Affection), Center Stage is a kind of backstage melodrama that follows a group of college-age kids who have been accepted at the country's most prestigious dance academy, where they work their tails off in the hopes of being invited to join the academy's professional counterpart, the American Ballet Company (modeled after the prestigious New York City Ballet).

Aimed primarily at adolescent and teenage girls -- and, to a certain extent, boys -- the film stars a cast of relative unknowns (several of them making their motion-picture debuts) and two bona fide stars of the American Ballet Theater, Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky. Stiefel (move over, Baryshnikov!) bears a passing resemblance to the English actor Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty) and has a similar shaggy sexiness that will appeal enormously to pubescent and prepubescent girls -- as well as to their mothers. In his professional acting debut, he strikes just the right balance of boyish charm and immature petulance. Radetsky has beautiful eyes and a commanding presence but never gives in to showiness

The core group of characters consists of students Jody (Amanda Schull, in her acting debut), a fresh-faced blonde whose dedication and hard work may not be enough to overcome her imperfect body ("You have bad feet -- not enough turnout," sniffs an instructor early on); Eva (Zoë Saldana), an underprivileged inner-city girl who feigns indifference rather than admit how much this opportunity means to her; and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a naturally gifted dancer whose aloofness masks a deep unhappiness. The male contingent includes the talented nice guy (Radetsky); a Russian student (Olympic-gold-medal ice skater Ilia Kulik); and -- surprise, surprise -- a gay guy (Shakiem Evans).

Rounding out the cast are Stiefel as Cooper, a rising American Ballet Company star who catches every girl's eye, including Jody's; Peter Gallagher as Jonathan, the academy's arrogant, egocentric director; and Donna Murphy, in a heartfelt performance, as a dance instructor whose no-nonsense demeanor obscures a sympathetic concern for her students.

Of course, what would a melodrama be without romantic intrigue? Center Stage provides it in the form of romantic triangles (not one but two), which add a much-needed second level of structure to the storyline and provide some of the film's wittiest, most cutting dialogue.

The script by Carol Heikkinen contains enough characters and subplots that the movie always feels as if it is going somewhere, although one never gets any true sense of the passage of time. The film opens, and suddenly Jonathan is announcing that they have only four months to go until the year-end recital!

Not surprisingly, the film features some out-of-this-world dancing, not only ballet but jazz. Stiefel and ballerina Julie Kent (who plays Kathleen, Cooper's former lover and now Jonathan's wife) perform a lyrical ballet duet to Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan). The chemistry between them almost ignites the screen. And the 15-minute jazz ballet that ends the film -- in which Jody, Charlie and Cooper play out the two romantic rivalries central to the story -- is an absolute showstopper. Kudos to choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (and to Susan Stroman, who choreographed many of the other numbers). Audiences will leave the theater ready to sign up for some dance classes themselves.

Opens May 12.