How “Center Stage” Became the Dance Film of Our Generation
Dance drama for teens Center stage hit movie screens in the spring of 2000 – at the height of the golden age of romantic comedy – and was quickly bombarded at the box office, gaining mostly negative reviews. But like his perfectionist characters, he couldn’t be downsized. The amalgamation of a coming-of-age tale, love triangle, and dramatic showcase of competition in an underground world quickly became a cult classic. Even today, a TV adaptation announced. Over time, the film, which turns 20 today, has proven to be the greatest dance film of our generation.
Directed by Sir Nicholas Hytner, the plot centers on a group of dancers as they vie for coveted seats in the fictional American Ballet Company (ABC). Thanks to its intense rivalries, dramatic dances and memorable soundtrack, Center stage got a spot by fans among canonical dance films like Saturday night fever, Free from all ties, and Dirty dance. He delivered the camp – if GIFS were popular communication methods at the time, lines from Maureen (Susan May Pratt) and Eva (Zoe Saldana) would surely be regular features on social media timelines – and footage incredible ballet performances. It also exposed bluntly the harsh reality of the artistic world: that most hopes won’t get there professionally. (The sentiment is often dictated by the spokesperson and eyebrows of the principal choreographer and director of the American Ballet Academy, Jonathan Reeves, played by a pre-CO Peter Gallagher.)
Sweet Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) is our protagonist, navigating the dance world – and the ballet bad boys that accompany it – amid setbacks, including reviews that she has the ‘wrong’ body type. and bad feet. For Schull, a professional ballet dancer, the film was her first acting gig on camera. “Everything about Jody was ingrained in me, so it was an easy experience to do, but also a stretch to be able to portray him, because I had never had an acting job like this before,” a- she declared. Marie Claire.
Charmed by fellow ABC dancer Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) and infamous ballet superstar Cooper Nielsen (Ethan Stiefel), Jody finds herself in a love triangle that plays out on and off the stage. Jody falls in love with Cooper, and the two embark on a sexy adventure (after a ride in the back of his motorbike to, presumably, where else? – Brooklyn). Set to the sweet sound of Mandy Moore’s early years, the sex scene remains perfectly contemporary and completely cheesy two decades later. (Jody assumes that means Cooper is her boyfriend; it was clearly a casual relationship with him.
Stiefel, who was a professional dancer at the American Ballet Theater (as were many supporting characters), says he has often been confused with his Center stage character over the years. âI was dean at one point in the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), and I think on more than one occasion a parent has asked me, I think with an ironic sensibility: ‘Are you really like Cooper Nielsen in real life?’ Says Stiefel. Yes, as far as motorcycles and dancing are concerned. But what about young female colleagues? No. âThis is not the way I did my business. “
Surrounded by Jody are her roommates: the headstrong Eva Rodriguez and Type A Maureen Cummings, who each have juicy subplots about their own frustrating journeys in the ballet world. All along Center stage, Eva’s rebellion – smoking in the dorms, wearing black leotards, and snapping gum during rehearsals – becomes her Achilles heel. âIt was very specific,â Saldana said of the character. âWhen you come from a world where certain resources were inaccessible to you, you grow up believing that it is because you do not belong there. Even if you feel like it, it’s not something you’ve seen before or performances of what looks like you. Saldana believes that breaking Eva’s rules “protects her dignity.”
Center stage was Saldana’s first movie role, a perfect fit for the former dancer. âI had danced for almost 10 years of my life, so playing Eva in my very first big studio movie and whether it was ballet, it was really beautiful,â she says. âI was heartbroken before I got the movie because of the transition to acting and kind of having to say goodbye to an art form that I fought so hard for to be successful. “
While Eva acted like she didn’t care much about ballet, Maureen didn’t care about anything else. The character has struggled with bulimia, her own unattainable standard, and her emotionally abusive stage mom. Maureen found herself excluded and resented her supposed future, which led her to realize that her involvement in ballet had limited her life experiences and robbed her of joy. She also delivered one of the most mocking cinematic comebacks of all time: “I’m the best damn ballerina in American Ballet Academy, who the hell are you?” Two decades later, we are still shaking.
The filmmakers intended to cast a dancer who could live up to that biting line, but Pratt landed the role. She trained for the role for about two âtopsâ months, and a double body filled the gaps. “I’m not a real dancer, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to dance with [the rest of the cast]â, Recalls Pratt. “I literally couldn’t, so that was my own problem.” The actress reveals that much of Maureen’s backstory was cut from the film, including moments between her and her onscreen boyfriend, Jim (Eion Bailey), as well as Maureen’s growing resentment towards the dance: “I think they cleverly cut it. It was just too much and too long.
In the end, Eva and Maureen act as foils for each other: as Maureen realizes that being a ballet dancer is not her dream, she offers Eva her place in the final workshop of dance.
Eva, too, was supposed to have a much bigger storyline. âIt was this downtown girl who was too proud to ask for help or to say when she was vulnerable,â says Saldana. “Even though she loved ballet it scared her, she was so tough about it and her brother was that anchor for her.” Victor, the brother, reveals Saldana, was supposed to be the limo driver who took the dancers into town on their day off.
“[Eva and her brother] had a bunch of scenes together, âSchull recalls. In the script, “he dies in the middle of the movie, and that kind of puts Eva’s whole life in perspective, and she’s wondering what … if she wants to keep dancing,” Schull recalls. (In fact, the first scene Schull shot was the funeral of Eva’s brother.) But the actress believes the film would have taken a “very different turn” if Victor’s storylines had been included and would have lasted ” nine o’clock “.
Although Eva’s character was denied her meaty and deserved story, Saldana’s cheeky and vibrant performance proved pivotal to the actress, solidifying her as a future star. The film launched Saldana to lead roles in a host of box office hits (Star Trek, Avatar, guardians of the galaxy) at a time when women of color were seldom offered the best job. âFor someone like me who comes from Queens, and I’m a person of color, I felt so much pride,â said Saldana. “And living vicariously through Eva was really magical for me.”
While the relationships between the dancers gave the film the dramatic impetus, it was the final recital that turned Center stage in an iconic “dance film“. At the film’s climax, viewers are treated to not one, but two studio performances: a traditional piece from Jonathan and Cooper’s punk-rock ballet.
Jonathan’s wise, conventional choreography was adapted to Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto; Cooper’s number was an act of rebellion, with a motorcycle ride on stage and love scenes mimed on a Michael Jackson and Jamiroquai soundtrack. âI think they put the bike in the movie after I was picked,â Stiefel recalls.
The bike hammered Cooper’s narrative, but the scorching performance is best remembered as Schull’s chains come straight out of his tutu. The iconic, radical scene is one that Schull struggled to get. “I remember doing this division on [Ethan] and I was really worried that I was going to either make him look stiff or make him look way too racy.
The film only grossed $ 17 million in theaters, but those numbers belie its legacy. Twenty years later Center stage has created a sort of foundation for the sports dramas that have taken over Netflix recently. The ephemeral series Spinning followed the grueling world of ice skating and Challenge me tackled the intensity of competitive cheerleading. And, of course, Jody, Maureen, Eva and Charlie are the early precursors of La’Darius, Jerry and the rest of the team at Applaud‘s Navarro College.
And just like Applaud captivated the public by the true passion of its actors for sport, Center stage became loved because he made the star dance. The fact that the majority of the film’s main cast were dancers made it easy to overlook the plot holes and stilted lines that bristled critics. “I think a lot of [why the movie resonated] it’s because [director] Nick Hytner really insisted that the dancers play the roles of dancers, âSchull explains. âAnd I think that gave it an authenticity for a dance film that no other dance film had at that time or at that time.
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