I saw Nicholas Hytner’s Center Stage at a public screening in a picture palace opposite Lincoln Center, where much of this teen-dream dance melodrama was shot. With a handful of exceptions, my fellow viewers at this late-afternoon showing were girls in early adolescence – very chirpy, very sweet. Though they are, by default, the niche audience for this film (which originally had higher aspirations), it falls beneath even their modest level of emotional and intellectual sophistication.
Set in a ferociously selective dance academy (modeled on SAB) that feeds into a world-class company, the movie is all stock types and stock plot – somewhat updated, to be sure, from The Turning Point, but even less believable than that Red Shoes wannabe and, worse yet, less potent in terms of fantasy. Center Stage incorporates just about every platitude about classical dancing that has ever flourished. The idea that a single performance can make or break a career provides the very scaffolding of the story. What I call the anatomy myth – that heart counts more than an ideal physique for dancing – serves as a central theme. A raunchily energetic jazz-class scene and some dirty dancing in a club demonstrate how hopelessly uptight ballet is compared with Terpsichore’s earthier manifestations. And so on, and on. Not one of these hokey notions is made convincing. Blame for this can be shared among Hytner; the screenwriter, Carol Heikkinen; and the cast. Most of the roles are taken by dancers, and most of these dancers – from San Francisco Ballet newcomer Amanda Schull as the dewy aspirant to American Ballet Theatre virtuoso Ethan Stiefel as the company star and resident Lothario – can’t act.
Despite the prodigious gifts for movement of its huge cast, Center Stage avoids sustained attention to actual dancing. The passages of ostensible performance onstage are rendered as an agitated string of fragments. Perhaps that’s just as well, given the material being performed. Broadway’s darling, Susan Stroman, provides a motorcyclist-among-the-sylphs affair, while ballet’s young man of the moment, Christopher Wheeldon, carries out the tutus-in-the-starry-night assignment. Both concoctions are just what you’d expect. Stiefel demonstrates his mettle in solo work from Stars and Stripes by you-know-who, whose invention shows up the other choreography for what it is.
Classical dancing captures our imagination because it embodies the human aspiration to something purer and grander than what is within our ordinary reach. To practice it involves ceaseless, single-minded labor and frequent heartbreak. People keep doing it and people keep watching it for what it offers, if only in fleeting moments: ecstasy. When The Red Shoes – to my mind still the most magical film based on these premises – was made in 1948, a substantial audience shared these ideas. Today, when we want ecstasy, we pop a pill. Does it help to think of Center Stage as a casualty of this shift in society’s mind-set?