Center Stage is a blast: great dancing from real ballerinas, including a final performance I watch on repeat. A love triangle. And Donna Murphy and Peter Gallagher convincingly running the ballet company. We are rooting for heroine Jody (Amanda Schull), whose technique, feet, and turnout don’t measure up to those of her classmates,’ who have also won scholarships from the American Ballet Academy. But she’s an expressive dancer, and so dedicated. Will she make it, get kicked out, or get no show time in the final workshop, killing her chances for a ballet career? The actress who plays Jody was apparently handpicked from the San Francisco Ballet since she had the exact issues that she’s corrected for in the story, and while at best a decent actress, she convincingly plays up the vulnerability that makes you stay on her side.
The film is a fun watch. But make no mistake: I’m not saying this movie is good, not at all. The dialogue and some of the side plots are comically trite. You have to tune all that out, and focus on:
As Jody is trying to find her way in the academy, sweet fellow dancer Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) flirts with her, but she is drawn to the star of the company, aspiring choreographer Cooper (Ethan Stiefel). Cooper and she have a brief affair, which means something to her and nothing to him. Although it’s hard to imagine anyone mistaking Cooper’s shady selfish soul for anything like boyfriend material, she’s so clearly inexperienced you feel for her.
Luckily, this plot is just a set-up for the mesmerizing dance that ends the film, and Charlie and Cooper; played by American Ballet Theater’s soon-to-be-soloist Sascha Radetsky and then principal dancer, Ethan Stiefel, respectively; are beautiful in motion, even when their acting is stiff (Radetsky) or laughable (Stiefel). And given its progeny (choreographed by slimy Cooper), the narrative of the final dance is remarkably feminist as well: a woman torn by two overly grasping men discards both to fight for her own space.
You can see even from these scenes why I try to forget the….
It’s the question of every dancing film, of course: cast actors, or cast dancers? With the former, you’ll need stand-ins for the harder dance moves; with the latter, you risk weak acting destroying the movie. That’s why Center Stage is such a curious film: there’s a mixture of dancers and actors, but inexpert as the dancer-actors are, the full-time actors are worse at acting than the dancers. Much worse. Zoë Saldana and Susan May Pratt were the “real” actors chosen to play Jody’s fellow dancers and friends/frenemies at the academy, and both excel at histrionics. As with Flashdance before it, Center Stage gives an unexpected answer to the actor/dancer dilemma: Why not choose someone who can’t do either?
While Saldana can at least move, Pratt displays a level of physical awkwardness that makes her casting baffling. Take this screen shot of the actress, who was presumably cast to lure in fans of 10 Things I Hate about You. Her character, Maureen, is supposed to have the best technique of anyone in the academy. Having spent seven years of my life in ballet studios, I remember what grace looks like, and believe me, it never looks like this:
In fact, this pose is remarkably reminiscent of my own awkward 19-year-own self, who was put into dancing as a kid to overcome a lack of coordination. Not exactly future prima ballerina material, my friends.
Saldana is at least fun to watch, even when she overplays her lines, but oh Pratt. Every scene is painful, and I tend to just fast forward through her parts (though the script is largely at fault too, her delivery is abominable). Luckily, the acting in the film is comic rather than annoying overall, and occasionally decent. And really, who cares? This is a dancing film, with great final performances, convincing practices, and a wonderful dance class at the Broadway Dance Studio in between. When Schull’s dancing, she’s a different actress than the passable one she is in the rest of film–lovely, riveting, fun. And given the choice between even good acting from poor dancers and some weak performances from people who can move? Give me the good dancers, every time.
This post is part of the En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon, hosted by two marvelous sites: Christina Wehner‘s and Michaela’s of Love Letters to Old Hollywood. (As a sidenote to fellow Hoosier Michaela, Schull studied ballet at Indiana University.) Check out the other blogathon entries here!