10 years ago, a little movie called Center Stage was released. Following a handful of young dancers as they vie for only six spots in New York’s famed American Ballet Company, it didn’t turn any heads during its theatrical run, barely making back its budget. But it has since become a beloved (albeit minor) cult success on DVD and television. Since much of my life is spent traipsing around with “artistic types” — many of which have a particular affinity toward musicals — this is one of the films that comes up in conversation or in somebody’s DVD collection again and again. Its poster even adorns my sister’s bedroom wall, so even when I’m not thinking about the movie, it’s invading my life.

Most of these acquaintances are fully aware that Center Stage is a guilty pleasure, something undemanding and easy, and a great pick-me-up on a gloomy day. But now that it has been a decade since its initial release, I watched it again and was able to experience it in a more analytical light. So I have to ask the question:

Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?

Worse.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s a monumentally watchable little film, full of energy and frantic motion, and I never felt as if rewatching it was a chore. But now I’m older — probably not wiser or more mature, though — and I can’t help but think that it misses a great deal of opportunities. I can’t fault a film for not doing what I expect it to or what I wish it to do, but the film suffers greatly in a few key elements. And had it excelled more with these elements, it could have been a classic.

I can’t prove any of this, but I have reasons to believe that this film was intended to be far more serious than its ultimate result. The pieces are there, and so is the ambition, but somewhere during production, its tone shifted from artsy to populist. My secondary proof is how the cast of adults is littered with respected Broadway veterans (e.g. Debra Monk, Donna Murphy, Peter Gallagher).

But my main proof? Hiring Nicholas Hynter to helm it. Hynter is an extremely prestigious director of stage and screen, and his theatre resume especially reads like a Best Of The Last 20 Years list. The Madness Of King George. Miss Saigon. The History Boys. The widely hailed revival of Carousel. The Alchemist. Seriously. Click on his Wikipedia. I’ll provide it.

Did you see that? He’s been the artistic director of the National Theatre in London for the majority of the last decade. And he’s been freakin’ KNIGHTED.

Now, when you watch Center Stage, does it feel like it’s being directed by somebody who now gets to call themselves “Sir [Anything]”? No. Why him? Why not do what the rest of the decade did with its dance films, which is to hire emerging choreographers or music video directors?

Well, because that would more than likely make it worse. But it’s something that really irked me while watching the film. With this in mind, it almost feels workmanlike half the time, as if Hynter battled a bit with the studio.

But, then again, the screenplay — which is fascinating in how it views the intimate details of ballet dancers (I especially like the shoe montage) — is from the woman who gave us Empire Records, and while that’s a fun 90s movie, it is faaaaaaaaar from perfect. Maybe the plot threads were this thin to begin with.

But you know what would have given the mediocre dialogue and clichéd stories more verve? Better actors. And here’s where the film runs into a Catch-22 — by casting the majority of its main roles with dancers, the film attains a credibility and energy that makes it stand head-and-shoulders above any dance film in recent memory. (With the possible exception of the lovely but somewhat tedious Robert Altman film The Company.) The use of dance doubles is at a minimum, and you can feel power in the film in the same way that a Jackie Chan film is better than it should be simply because you know he does his own stunts. Unfortunately, only Zoë Saldaña (yes, I prefer to use the most ethnic version of her name) emerges as anything close to a professional actress, which ten years later makes perfect sense. (I don’t care what you say. She was brilliant in Avatar, even with millions of dollars of special effects in the way.) Her scenes with Murphy’s draconian instructor make up the film’s greatest plotline, and I believe it’s more the power of the acting than the machinations of the script that makes this happen.

And aside from her, the rest of the main cast is made up of beautiful dancers with Grade-C acting abilities. And that hurts the film considerably. I’ve never been more bored with the central love triangle between Amanda, Cooper and Charlie than I was this time around, and it doesn’t help that a.) Cooper is a miserable dirtbag and b.) the actor playing Charlie is like the Luke Wilson of the dance world — as bland as the nose on yo mama’s face. And Maureen’s relationship with Columbia pre-med student Jim, while adorable on the surface, seems to have suffered from a trip to the cutting room floor. (I do like how the miniplot regarding the “overweight” ballerina is handled, but it takes up less than five minutes of the entire film.)

But still, Center Stage is the best of its ilk, because, much like how Moulin Rouge! and Chicago helped revive the movie musical, it was the first movie in a long time to take the material (somewhat) seriously. Sure, Stomp The Yard is a hoot, and I have a bizarre affinity toward Step Up 2: The Streets, but the recent onslaught of dance films took what doesn’t work about Center Stage — an over-reliance on clichés, how it gears toward pre-teen girls — and amplified them. (The straight-to-television follow-up, Center Stage: Turn It Up, is a miserable piece of shit that gets everything wrong.) Dance films are, for the most part, being made for the wrong reasons, and I would, of course, prefer they be made for the right reasons.

For a better, shorter explanation of what I mean, allow me to give you the following equations:

Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance = right reasons
ABC’s Dancing With The Stars = wrong reasons
MTV’s Taking the Stage = somewhere in between

But man, the dance sequences in Center Stage work just as well as they used to. Perhaps even better. Most dance sequences nowadays are just an excuse to have the cast show off, but here they work as pieces of a story. (That’s very easy to say when the climax of the film is literally the plot we have just seen in the plot, but it’s savvier than you think.) And props have to be given to the various choreographers, especially Susan Stroman, who would, only a year later, become a Broadway superstar when she took over the directorial reigns from her deceased husband on the recordbreaking staging of The Producers. Cooper’s ballet at the end is still a fantastic setpiece, and I don’t think it will ever get old. Even the tiny bit of fantasy they throw in there (i.e. the impossible costume change) is more charming than jolting, because it’s in the same vein as any of the dozens of backstage musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, where sequences take place that would be impossible to perform on any stage.

And if you think Napoleon Dynamite did a better job dancing to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” than this, you’re insane.

Free-Floating Thoughts:

  • Susan May Pratt (Maureen) has a terrible laugh about halfway through the film during her bowling alley date with Jim. It’s the female version of the Keanu laugh. (“Hah, hah, haaaaaaaaaaah……..”)
  • The sponge fight is a perfect example of where I think the elements of a worse movie invaded what could have been a far more intelligent and subversive movie.
  • So is the following dialogue, which is the film’s crummy excuse for romantic dialogue:
    Cooper: You know, I noticed your dancing before I recognized your face.
    Amanda: I have to admit, I recognized your face first.
  • And then they perform one of the worst screen kisses I’ve ever seen. It looks like something out of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy.
  • The New York City skyline backdrops are simply atrocious. And not even in a fun, weird way. They are distractingly awful.
  • It’s this film’s fault that I can’t listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” without thinking of this movie. And I’m guessing RHCP may not appreciate that.
  • The elephant-mouse joke still doesn’t work. And when censored versions of the film are shown on cable, it doesn’t even make any sense.
  • I love how obvious it is that the film’s poster is made up of two elements: the nice cast picture in the background, and the clearly superimposed group of ballet shoe-wearing feet in the foreground. It makes me giggle.
  • Center Stage is not immune from fanfic. Check out this one chronicling Maureen’s life after she gave up ballet.

(“Center Stage” is readily available on Netflix Instant, but if you’re the kind of person who loves this kind of movie, chances are you already own it)

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