In Nicholas Hytner’s drama Center Stage, an ensemble of young dancers join the prestigious American Ballet Academy in New York – but only a select few will progress beyond their first year. The academy itself is entirely fictional, but Hytner and writer Carol Heikkinen manage to zero in with good accuracy on what it is usually like to train for classical ballet.
That is not to say that Center Stage is a particularly great film. It is comfortably good and likely entertained its target market back in 2000, but it suffers from a stereotype-ridden screenplay that essentially thinks up every cliche of the genre and applies it to its characters. Think momentarily of what possible storylines you could imagine for a teen drama in a ballet school. If your list includes competitive bitchiness, a male teacher seducing a female student, a pushy dance mum, and a case of bulimia – among other things – then you could probably do a solid job of writing Center Stage yourself. I usually do my best to avoid unnecessary spoilers when discussing a film; in the case of Center Stage the clichés do a stunning job of spoiling the film on their own.
The script is simple, but the world it inhabits is accurate. Ballet is represented as physically punishing, emotionally gruelling, and enormously stressful. In one scene a character notes that they only have 10 years in which to make their dancing career before they will be forced to retire, and it is a concern that rings with truth. In directing the film Nicholas Hytner has framed the action inside a realistic world of rehearsal rooms, dance studios, and theatre stages. The background extras are all real-life dancers, and it shows. The dancing skills even extend to the principal cast. With one or two exceptions, the leads are either professional ballerinas or trained dancers turned actors. There is a trade-off made in most modern dance films: performers gifted at both acting and dance are comparatively rare these days, which means either relying on dancers to act or actors to learn dance. By-and-large Hytner relies on the former, which results in some limited characters but excellent dance. The cast were, at the time, generally unknowns. In the intervening years Zoe Saldana (here playing the rebellious Eva Rodriguez) has become one of the most famous actors in the world through roles in Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Trek; this was her first film role. Peter Gallagher and Donna Murphy are rock-solid as the academy’s key teachers.
It is the dance that is the real draw card here. The film’s extended climax essentially presents two short ballets in full – one classical, one contemporary – and presents a range of choreography and properly inventive routines thanks to Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon. Hytner knows how to shoot the scenes as well, applying Fred Astaire’s famed instruction (‘either the camera moves, or I do’) to give the performances their maximum impact and effect. If you love screen drama, Center Stage will probably underwhelm. If you love dance, then Hytner has certainly made the overall film worth your while.