I haven’t been watching many films lately, with the cinemas all shut down and my favourite DVD rentals dying off even earlier, but now I’m finally streaming! This teen dance drama, celebrating its 20th anniversary this May, wasn’t an obvious choice for the first movie to watch on Netflix, but it proved to be an excellent Friday night pick.
Center Stage follows a bunch of talented youngsters through their year of training at the American Ballet Center in New York, where they have to be exceptionally good indeed to make it into the company: only three boys and three girls will receive the invitation at the end of the year. There’s sweet Jody (Amanda Schull), who doesn’t have the conventional ballet dancer physique or the right turnout, but is accepted into the school because of her sparkling presence. Maureen (Susan May Pratt) is our sympathetic villain, a stand-offish star student with a pushy stage mum and secret bulimia. Eva (Zoe Saldana in her first film appearance), is a mouthy rebel who talks back to the teachers and seems doomed to the back of the line because of her attitude. There’s Sergei, a Russian student who is refreshingly played by a real Russian. Naturally there’s a hardass perfectionist head of the company (Peter Gallagher), who has a tense working relationship with his lead dancer Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), the bike-riding sexy bad boy who is itching to modernise ballet and shake things up.
Center Stage is definitely a dance movie that puts dancing above its predictable story and characters who mostly fall into recognisable types. However, despite the occasionally clunky dialogue and some wobbly acting, the cast is all-around charming and appealing, and the movie treats topics like eating disorder with sensitivity and sympathy. Crucially, most of the main characters are played by real professional ballet dancers, which gives the movie a welcome sense of authenticity.
The dance scenes, be it the strict training at the academy, the joyfully unshackled class in a Broadway dance studio that Jody secretly attends, or the two big ballet show-stoppers in the end, are a pure pleasure to watch. The grand finale in particular is wonderfully choreographed and performed; have I been, oh, twenty-five years or so younger, they’d probably make me want to knock on the door of a ballet studio the next morning. Instead, they made me think wistfully of when I’ll be able to attend a ballet performance again, or resume my belly-dancing classes. Center Stage may not be a great movie in a conventional sense, but it’s undoubtedly a marvellous celebration of ballet’s physicality and grace.
P.S. The film’s soundtrack – Mandy Moore, Jamiroquai, Red Hot Chili Peppers – sure does hit those sweet early 00’s nostalgic buttons!