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Center Stage

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Center Stage

Starring: Susan May Pratt, Peter Gallagher
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: May 2000
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Eion Bailey, Donan Murphy, Zoe Saldana, Amanda Schull, Debra Monk, Sascha Radetsky, Ethan Stiefel

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When I was running a speakers' program for my high school teaching job, I once invited a male ballet dancer from a local theater. As soon as the macho students heard of his profession, they laughed--just like four young barflies in Nicholas Hytner's new and highly entertaining movie, "Center Stage." The dancer, whose name was Mischa, walked on his toes for several minutes about the raised platform in the center of the auditorium amid continued titters. He then invited three of the class weight lifters to come up and do the same. Guess who got the last laugh?

"Center Stage" takes us into this world of dance, not only of ballet but also of salsa, modern, jazz, and aerobics. This is a thoroughly refreshing movie, most unlike director Nicholas Hytner's celebrated "The Madness of George III," its script closer to the second-rate writing of the same director's "The Object of My Affection." As we left the theater after a critics' screening, one colleague stated that Hytner had "prostituted himself," explaining that the story was banal and predictable and that "I just can't become interested in a movie if I don't get into the story." His attitude is unfortunate. No doubt there are moviegoers who demand that their entertainment be plot-driven, but some of the best films are character-driven and, in this case, music-and-dance propelled. And my, what a splendid diversion is "Center Stage," a Broadway musical splashed across the big screen treating its guests to front row seats at a small fraction of the cost of seeing a live performance at Lincoln Center! The characters are types rather than unique individuals: one has ample talent but an attitude problem; another has bad feet and the wrong body, but her heart is abundantly large; yet a third girl is the best, talent-wise, but she is unhappily in the wrong profession, one which makes her sad and even desperate. The principal male is the envy of the entire company and is appropriately full of himself and a perilous womanizer. But who cares if they're stereotypes? The bodies on the stage are young, bouncy and attractive, their spirits are alive in youth's best tradition; and when they dance they make us feel as though we're at once in the world of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and of Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story."

"Center Stage" focusses on Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull), whose name may be a homage to "42nd Street"'s Peggy Sawyer--a blue-eyed blonde of flawless good looks who is accepted into a class at the American Ballet Academy at New York's Lincoln Center because of her face and despite her "bad feet." As she pirouettes across the grounds of this most prestigious of American dance schools, she greets an assortment of people, actually types: Maureen (Susan May Pratt) is the academy's finest dancer, a bulimic profoundly unhappy in a career chosen for her by her frustrated mother, Nancy (Debra Monk). Jonathan (Peter Gallagher) and Juliette (Donna Murphy) are the school's director and chief instructor respectively while Eva (Zoe Saldana) is the chip-on-her-shoulder girl whose manner virtually challenges the director to throw her out. Though many young eyes are on the attractive, Seattle-born Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), the superstar is first- class dancer and choreographer Cooper (Ethan Stiefel).

The dance numbers (which are what we came for, not for Carol Heikkinen's giddy story) are so varied that we don't get to learn much about the nature of any one genre. We do find out from an opening visual on a performer's feet that the ballet punishes far more than stiletto heels ever could, causing sores and rashes and bunions that make us wonder how dancers can last through even their brief ten-year careers before they become teachers or burger flippers.

As Jodie wins the attention and infatuation of Cooper only to lose heart when Cooper inevitably moves on to his next conquest, and as Maureen learns through months of regurgitation that this career is not for her, we get a sense however spurious of the backstage lives of these young people--their relationships with one another and with the older folks who run the school. What the movie is really about is Ethan Stiefel's dancing to the George Balanchine- choreographed Stars andStripes, the two gossamer lovers in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, and especially the bang-up concluding performance, an original rock creation complete with motorcycle on stage, performed to the music of Michael Jackson--which brings the SRO audience at the American Ballet Theater to its feet.

The story is no way up to the caliber of Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy," but the Broadway-style performances are more vivid than the segments shown in that picture's excerpts from "The Mikado." What you come away with is that these dancers can prance to salsa, aerobics, and jazz as readily as they pirouette to the stately and soaringly romantic airs of Tschaikowsky. Ethan Stiefel is the man to watch, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre who is perhaps the present generation's answer to Mikhail Barishnikov.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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