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When high art stoops to conquer, only one audience is ever pleased, and it’s fictional. Center Stage, a deplorably crummy “backstage” flick about moronic ballet students undergoing unlikely growing pains, climaxes with one of those cringe-inducing rock ‘n’ roll ballet numbers featuring a motorcycle roaring onstage, a white tutu ripped off to reveal a teensy red leotard, and a standing ovation, after some confusion, from the finger-snapping bluehairs in the box seats. In the tradition of college sex comedies, even the uptight old dean goes from outraged to elated in a matter of minutes.
But that’s all happening on the screen. In the movie theater seats, fans of, ahem, real ballet, who like the form partly for the fact that motorcycles and Michael Jackson songs are not traditional components of it, gawp in aghast wonder, whereas film fans, who like their art to make some sense, giggle and snort not just at the pandering but at the pathetic level of pandering to which such tactics descend. Center Stage’s lame stab at “relevance”—whatever that is—makes for the kind of cheap genre that was shamed into parody by The Simpsons so long ago you’d think no one would ever do it straight again. It’s former Olympic medalists in “Rockin’ on Ice” dancing to tunes from the Johnny Rockets jukebox. It’s classically trained dancers making fools of themselves in an effort to make ballet meaningful to the masses, who are presumed to be too stupid to enjoy movement and music for their own sakes. The result is laughable: the men with their Slavic wolfhound faces and magnificent comportment trying to slouch and sneer in a black leather jacket, the girls engaging in a stylized apache dance that makes the mock-slapping moves in Grease look like Swan Lake.
Scripted by Carol Heikkinen with help from the feminists’ nemesis Wendy Wasserstein, Center Stage amounts to Flashdance-meets-Fame, with much worse acting and much better dancing. It’s set at the fictional American Ballet Academy, the feed-school for the American Ballet Company (ABC), and follows the destiny of three spunky kids whose personalities and fates are so set in stone that it’s a wonder they can dance at all: Jody (Amanda Schull), a blond innocent with big dreams; Eva (Zoe Saldana), a mixed-raced girl from the wrong side of the tracks whose bad attitude makes her doubly out of place at the oh-so-proper school; and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a paragon of perfect technique who’s so bitchy, nasty, and friendless she must harbor a Terrible Secret. If you don’t know what the Terrible Secret is before the lingering close-up on the untouched slice of pizza on her plate, then perhaps this whole moviegoing thing is not for you.
Center Stage’s main problem is not even that it’s a ballet movie—Bullwinkle, that trick never works—but that it casts actors as dancers and dancers as actors. The American Ballet Theatre’s Ethan Stiefel is one of the greatest dancers of our age, but as squirrely love interest “Cooper Neilsen,” he’s a joke, making moony eyes and stilted seduction talk with poor, mouth-breathing Jody, while the beautiful and elegant Pratt is photographed in dizzying alternating close-ups and long shots to disguise the fact that she doesn’t really dance. (Remember Anne Bancroft tearing around the stage making swooping motions with her muumuu-like costume in The Turning Point? Yeah, well, at least Bancroft can act.)
Jody and her by-the-numbers pals—the flagrantly gay black guy, the hunky straight guy, the chubby chick, rebellious Eva—may not have dancing in their bones, but they sure can frolic, so long as it leads to a plot point. They frolic on the empty stage after an ABC performance (and overhear some crucial dialogue); they bust loose and hit a salsa club (where they begin to suspect there’s more to the dancing life than ballet); they can’t even be punished without turning their work sentence into a wacky sponge fight. The story wastes time the way the soapy but tidy Fame never did, meandering toward the climactic showcase performance that is meant to demonstrate the kids’ talents to various companies.
Center Stage is even soapier than Fame, and the cast is all wet, particularly the dopey, sweet, droopy, flat-voiced Schull as a kind of working-class princess of ballet. Will the Russian student (Ilia Kulik, a great dancer who can kind of act and hardly gets to) be chosen to dance in San Francisco with his much-beloved girlfriend? Will Eva get to prove she’s more than just a lucky poster girl for artistic affirmative action? Will Maureen have a bulimic meltdown and confront her mother in a dialogue reading: “But honey, it’s your dream.” “No, Mom. It’s your dream”? (Yes, but even better, she cinches this with “You didn’t have the feet; I don’t have the heart,” to merry gales of audience laughter.) The dialogue is moronic in the extreme. “Do you think I’m an idiot for getting involved with him?” Jody asks the hunky straight guy after Cooper snubs her—by this time, the folks in the screening room were clutching their sides.
The film comes alive only when the dancers are allowed to do their thing, however cheap the filmmakers’ excuse. So the smitten Jody watches Cooper performing Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes or attends a rousing jazz class; or all the students witness pieces of the divine ABT Romeo and Juliet, so we get to see the tough girl cry. The narrative is so slavishly in hock to the cliches of its genre that even after the standing ovation Jody receives for her starring role in Cooper’s nerdily badass dance, even after her big speech to the ABC’s arrogant dance master (Peter Gallagher!), Hytner saw fit to tack on a last scene of a triumphant Jody walking into an ecstatically applauding crowd of friends and admirers. Any film that needs two everyone-applauds-the-lead endings is too insecure to take seriously, and it shows in every frame during which the characters keep still. Center Stage is pretty smart about ballet, but very stupid about life. CP