[Screen It]

(2000) (Amanda Schull, ZoŽ Saldana) (PG-13)

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Drama: Facing long odds, petty differences and lots of hard work, a disparate group of young dancers tries to prove their worth and gain acceptance into the prestigious American Ballet Company.
Jody Sawyer (AMANDA SCHULL) is a young dancer who's just been accepted into the training classes conducted by the American Ballet Company of New York that's looking for three men and three women to add to its current troupe. Although Jody doesn't have the perfect form or technique, those testing her sense a certain innate ability to perform and the fact that she's rather attractive certainly doesn't hurt matters.

Jody's roommates are Eva Rodriguez (ZOň SALDANA), a gifted dancer with a bad attitude, and Maureen Cummings (SUSAN MAY PRATT), the best dancer of the bunch who's known for her cold demeanor and omnipresent stage mother, Nancy (DEBRA MONK), who continually pushes her daughter to succeed.

The girls then meet other students in training, including Erik (SHAKIEM EVANS), a young gay dancer who's interested in Charlie (SASCHA RADETSKY) whose girlfriend has just dumped him prior to him arriving, as well as Sergei (ILIA KULIK), a Russian dancer, and Emily (VICTORIA BORN), a troupe veteran who's put on some weight.

Under the tutelage of director Jonathan Reeves (PETER GALLAGHER) and his assistants Juliette (DONNA MURPHY) and Cooper (ETHAN STIEFEL), the company choreographer, the students begin the long and arduous hours of practice and training, each hoping to gain a spot in a big performance that will then determine whether they make the final cut or not.

As the longstanding competition between Jonathan and Cooper escalates - due to the former stealing Kathleen (JULIE KENT) from the latter and both vying for the financial backing of Joan Miller (ELIZABETH HUBBARD) - the students compete against each other and themselves. With Maureen finally loosening up a bit after she starts seeing Jim (EION BAILEY), a pre-med student, Eva learning that her bad attitude is probably hampering her prospects, and Jody having to deal with various romantic interests as well as her less than perfect style that's endangering her chances, the students continue to work hard as they prepare for their big shot at joining the ballet company.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It seems that nearly every decade and/or generation of moviegoers has certain films that are the seminal events of their particular genre. "The Exorcist" and "Star Wars" are the prime examples from the 1970s of horror and sci-fi films, while "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Sixth Sense" will probably go down as the epitome of their respective genres during the 1990s.

That same factor especially holds true for what were once labeled as "musicals," but since that format has all but disappeared, we'll refer to them as "dance movies." As such, the 1960s had "West Side Story," the '70s "Saturday Night Fever" and the 1980s were well-represented by "Flashdance," "Dirty Dancing" and "Footloose."

Oddly enough, however, the 1990s didn't produce a dance film that became the epitome of its era. Although there were various entries - ranging from those awful "Lambada" films from the first part of the decade to a series of films that never caught on with audiences (including "Strictly Ballroom," "Swing Kids," Woody Allen's musical, "Everyone Says I Love You" and 1998's "Dance With Me") - none will stand out in moviegoers' minds decades into the future.

Now, however, and primed for the new millennium and next generation of dance fans is "Center Stage." Of course, it's too early to tell whether this first entry for the coveted title will be able to hold on for the next nine and a half years, but this film certainly has the right material to do so.

Many might be wondering, however, how a film about ballet will catch on with the moviegoing masses. That's particularly true as related to the younger set one doesn't normally associate with being particularly inclined to watch this sort of more traditional style of expressive and artistic dancing.

Director Nicholas Hytner ("The Object of My Affection," "The Crucible") and screenwriter Carol Heikkinen ("The Thing Called Love") obviously pondered that issue as well and have apparently come up with an audience pleasing compromise. Mixing traditional ballet-related practicing and performances with a more modern and hip retrofitting of the dance form, and throwing in an assortment of dance scenes not associated with that classic style of dance, the filmmakers have seemingly hit the mother lode.

The film also benefits from avoiding the trappings that have plagued many musical and subsequent "dance movies" since then, and those are the moments where characters drop what they're doing and suddenly break into song and/or dance to express their feelings. While such artistic expression once had its day and time, it doesn't really cut it nowadays. Beyond Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" -- that simultaneously paid homage and seemingly poked fun of such moments -- and the non-dance adaptation of "Evita," it's a rare occurrence on the silver screen.

Here, as in the films "Dirty Dancing" and "Saturday Night Fever" where the characters congregated to participate in that physical/social activity, the characters dance at the appropriate times and don't otherwise violate that rule. Of course, since this movie's all about dancing, there are plenty of such moments and those who enjoy watching such films will probably get a kick out of this picture.

One of the obvious logistical nightmares of making such a film -as is the case with sports movies - is in realistically portraying the activity. Whereas the above films were lucky to find talented dancers who could also act, filmmakers are often forced either to use name performers and fake or substitute the dance numbers, or hope that the talent can learn the necessary moves before shooting begins. On the flip side, they can also choose the professional dancers and hope they don't stink up the place with their thespian efforts.

Fortunately for the film and the audience, the filmmakers here found a good cross section of both for the movie's major roles. While the acting occasionally feels a bit forced - particularly when some of the performers are asked to strenuously emote - and the behavior occasionally comes off as stereotypical or is never explained, for the most part the performances are decent.

As the lead character, twenty-one-year-old Amanda Schull (making her film debut), who had been accepted as an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet when she was "discovered," does a good job on both ends and properly grounds the film around her character's situation. ZoŽ Saldana (who also makes her film debut after appearing on a few TV shows) inhabits the "bad girl with a good heart" character and plumbs the not tremendously developed role for all of its audience pleasing worth.

Meanwhile, Susan May Pratt ("Drive Me Crazy," "10 Things I Hate About You") plays the stereotypical talented young woman who tires of her "stage mother" mom's constant pushing, and Peter Gallagher ("To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," "While You Were Sleeping") plays the standard hard-nosed and arrogant "coach."

Playing the various dancers, real life performers Ethan Stiefel (considered the "most advanced male dancer in the world") and Sascha Radetsky (another dancer in the American Ballet Theatre) are quite impressive in both their acting and dancing, although they obviously excel best in the latter department. Other dancers and non-dancers come off credibly, at least to this untrained eye.

As with many dance-related films, the plot obviously isn't the picture's strongest inherent point and that's certainly the case here. Following the standard, but audience pleasing plot structure of introducing the new students and then seeing them grow and change as they overcome various obstacles and difficulties in their professional and personal lives, the basic story isn't anything novel and it's certainly far from being unpredictable.

Overall, however, it unfolds in a credible enough fashion that it does manage - to some extent - to pull the viewer into the proceedings and have them rooting for the success of their chosen favorites by the time the big conclusive dance number rolls around.

Both the traditional ballet and more contemporary dance numbers are impressive and fun to watch -- courtesy of choreographers Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon - and easily deliver the goods the audience has come to observe. Despite the two styles being obviously dissimilar, as presented here they work rather well together and should please fans of "dance" movies. For those who aren't big fans of the genre, it's possible they won't mind the proceedings either and may just get a kick out of the film regardless of its predictability and retracing of familiar elements from other dance-related flicks. While not a great film, let alone the best dance picture, "Center Stage" is moderately enjoyable and for that it gets a 6 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed May 4, 2000 / Posted May 12, 2000

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