On Their Toes 

*Center Stage (PG-13)
Columbia Pictures

Like many of you, when I saw the trailer for Center Stage, I glibly dismissed it. The familiar story elements were all there -- young, nave girl from the Midwest goes to New York City to try to make it in the ballet world, is seduced by the lead male dancer and must decide whether she is talented enough to make it in that competitive, cutthroat world. Fame meets The Turning Point.

My pre-judgment was uninformed. I didn't know Center Stage was directed by renowned London stage director Nicholas Hytner whose movie credits include The Madness of King George and The Crucible. And I didn't know the cast would include some of the finest young dancers in the world, including American Ballet Theater's rising star, Ethan Stiefel.

Center Stage, as it turns out, is Fame meets The Turning Point, and it is extraordinarily sensitive, well-told and visually compelling. Admittedly, I am a sucker for this genre, but I cannot think of a single good reason not to revel in an hour and a half of gorgeous, riveting shots of beautiful young dancers with their swan necks, square shoulders, narrow hips and endless legs, struggling against all odds to pursue their passion.

Amanda Schull heads the ensemble cast as Jody, a sweet young thing from Indiana who arrives in the big city for a summer of training at the American Ballet Academy. Among her classmates are Eva (Zoe Saldana), a smart-mouthed, hot-tempered young black woman from Boston; Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a bulimic, driven prima donna; Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), a naturally great dancer and all-around good guy from Seattle; Erik (Shakiem Evans), a good-natured, openly-gay veteran of the academy; and Sergei, the classically-trained Russian dancer, played by Olympic ice-skating champion Ilia Kulik. Their idol, and the object of their envy and lust, is the company's lead male dancer, Cooper Neilson, played by Stiefel.

Schull plays blond, toothy, wide-eyed and innocent with convincing freshness -- in real life, she is a member of the corps de ballet of the San Francisco Ballet -- and the supporting characters are well-written, well-rounded, and generally well-acted. And all of them, with the exception of Pratt, who is the single dedicated actor in the bunch, dance like demons.

As in all films that fall into this genre, the dancing is the central spectacle of Center Stage. Hytner's staging and camera work are exemplary. We are treated to overhead shots that emphasize the patterns of the ballet; foot-level shots that reveal the intricacies of the dance; long shots, short shots and swirling crane shots that embrace the beauty and difficulty of ballet with affectionate and knowledgeable vision and virtuosity. And Center Stage is a wonderful "backstage" movie -- taking us into the wings of the theater, the deserted lobby, the rehearsal hall to see the show behind the show.

Themes of loss of innocence, fierce physical training vs. fun, talent vs. determination, real life vs. art, the sexy lead male dancer vs. the earnest up-and-coming rookie are all played out with intelligence and style in Center Stage. And best of all, they are largely staged on the dance floor, enacted by a whirlwind cast of beautiful, incredibly talented young dancers.


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