Way Off Center Stage
Near the end of Nicholas Hytner’s ballet dancers-in-love film Center Stage, up-and-coming dancer and star of her class Maureen Cummings (Susan May Pratt) finally confronts her bossy, show-biz mother about the lengths to which she has driven her daughter. Maureen informs mom that, in the attempt to fulfill her own failed childhood dreams, she has essentially ruined her daughter’s happiness: “You didn’t’ have the feet,” Maureen says, “I don’t have the heart.” To which I must add, “And I don’t have the stomach.” Unfortunately, Center Stage doesn’t reserve this level of schlock for its “dramatic” ending. Indeed, throughout, the movie is overridden with clich and breathlessly repeats all the banalities of the teen psychodrama that we have come to expect. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually as big a fan, and as generous in my appreciation of the genre, as the next person (actually, much more so than the next person). And so it was somewhat surprising, even to me, that I couldn’t find anything likable in Center Stage.
Well, this is not entirely true. The one thing that might save this awful film is the dance scenes, which are lovely to watch, being filmed and choreographed beautifully. Unfortunately the film’s storyline intervenes, and the viewer is left to fidget and squirm, hoping the next dance number will come soon. What makes the dancing in the film so excellent is the wise decision to cast “real” ballet dancers in the starring and supporting roles (with the one exception of Jennie Garth, of 90210 fame, who, while always so small and ethereal-looking on the tv show, flounders around like a walrus amidst all these reedy ballerinas). But this casting decision is also one of the film’s major downfalls, as the acting is generally atrocious. Indeed, it would appear that ballet dancers make even worse actors than rock stars or professional wrestlers (although this really shouldn’t be that surprising, as Baryshnikov has been demonstrating it for years).
Center Stage follows a group of aspiring ballet legends over the course of a year at the American Ballet Academy and really, the film is essentially a rewriting of Fame (movie or TV version) for the ballet set. The film’s school, the American Ballet Academy (ABA), and its parent dance troupe, the American Ballet Company, while both fictional, are pointedly supposed to evoke that August institution of dance, the American Ballet Theater. All the students work tirelessly towards being cast in the year-end student dance workshop, which, as ABC artistic director Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher) informs the kids, is really an audition for every major ballet company in America. The most important company is, of course, the ABC, and out of all the students there will only be six (three boys, three girls) “invited” to join. So much for the central agon of the film.
And what about the characters? Well, they could hardly be less surprising. We have the already mentioned Maureen, ballet superstar-to-be and bulimic megabitch who, of course, comes to realize the misery dancing is causing her, and that all she really wants to do is sleep with her boyfriend, and hang out with her new friends, bowling, drinking beer and eating pizza without having to throw everything up again and again. And there’s Jody (Amanda Schull), the underdog from Indiana, who is so intimidated by her classes, teachers and fellow students that she fucks up every lesson, yet will make the star turn in the year end performance that wows the crowd and gains her all the glory. And don’t forget Eva Rodriguez (Zoe Saldana), the plucky, mixed-race prodigy from South Boston who, though she talks back to her teachers, smokes (heaven forbid!), and disparages formal education and the institution of ballet at every turn, desperately wants to dance for the rest of her life.
The boys are equally prosaic. Aside from the fast-talking, campily quipping gay boy Eric (Shakiem Evans), one would think the ballet world filled not with homosexuals (as is the common cultural perception, which has some truth), but with predatory straight boys. And so, Cooper Neilson (Ethan Stiefel) is the young star dancer of the ABC who sleeps his way through the female corps de ballet, and Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) the impossibly sweet and impossibly sexy good boy from Seattle, whose girlfriend dumps him right before he leaves for school. The list could go on. Suffice it to say, pick any bromide you care to about either teenagers or ballet, and you can find them represented in the most unoriginal ways in Center Stage.
In fact, the film warns us it will traffic only in the most cliched representations of ballet before we even meet any of these stock characters. In the very first moments of the film, the camera follows various girls as they enter the ABA. We never see these girls from above the waist, but it is clear they are dancers as the camera lingers over their slim waists, flat stomachs and equally flat bottoms, and their long slender, coltish legs. While you and I might plod the city streets on our daily business, these dancers seem to float above the pavement, only occasionally touching ground, so graceful are they even as they’re walking to school.
This vision of easy grace and beauty is quickly undermined by the film’s fascination with feet. In the next camera sequence, as the girls are getting ready for the first day of classes, we watch them getting their ballet slippers and feet ready for the day. Their feet and toes are taped up, their slippers pounded to soften them, the satin shredded with rasps to give added traction, the insteps torn out. In short, the girls try to make their slippers in any way more comfortable, and the slippers become a figure for their own various bodily abuses in the pursuit of the “perfect form” (both bodily and balletic). And so, throughout the rest of the film, the camera returns continually to gaze on blistered, bloody and mutilated little ballerina feet. Ahh, the paradox of ballet, what looks to the audience to be so light and delicate is in reality grueling labor. And the ballet slipper, so satiny and feminine looking, is really a device of agony and torture. This rather obvious commentary on ballet and the aggressive stereotyping of its teen characters goes far in making the film feel like an ABC After School Special, or at the very least, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.
The secondary tension in Center Stage is the generational conflict between new kid rogue Cooper Neilson and old guard artistic director Jonathan Reeves. Throughout, these boys battle with each other over women, over prestige, and over their individual artistic greatness. All their petty squabbling comes to a head, naturally, in the final student workshop where Jonathan is bested by his rival’s choreography. While Reeves’ classically composed and intricate piece is well received, Neilson’s brash and daring ballet, featuring an on-stage motorcycle ride, a love triangle, a “gritty” street scene, and music by Michael Jackson and Jamiroquai brings the house down. Additionally, Neilson’s brilliant choreography and performance in the piece (he has to replace the student dancer Eric, who sprains his ankle in final rehearsal) garner the funding he has been romancing to start his own dance company. Here again (and again, and again), Center Stage is content within the tired conventions of its own genre. This generational angst, and the triumph of youth over an old, obsolete order is hardly new in youth movies. And the film even goes so far as to have Cooper’s stated desire to be the revitalization of ballet, to make it “more for the people”: how revolutionary!
And yet, what is perhaps most interesting about Center Stage is that the story is not just the stuff of teen melodrama, but also the stuff of contemporary ballet history. This is to say, Baryshnikov is all over this film. Real life ballet star Stiefel, as Neilson, looks remarkably like a younger, sandy-haired Baryshnikov, and his antics in the film and in the ballet world have recently marked him as the current enfant terrible, just as Baryshnikov was in his early days and rise to fame with the American Ballet Theater. Furthermore, at the height of his popularity, creative differences with the ABT led Baryshnikov to break with the company and establish his own White Oaks Dance Project, just as Neilson creates his own company in the film. Like the legendary Baryshnikov, Neilson is a relentless womanizer, a tyrannical and hypercritical choreographer, a brilliant dancer, and so on. Nonetheless, even this thinly veiled retelling of the “real story,” or at least the myth that surrounds Baryshnikov, can’t save the film. If you want a compelling and harrowing story of the paradoxes of the ballet world, of its pressures and accolades, rent a copy of The Nutcracker starring Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, read Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, and forget all about Center Stage.