Remembering the fleet-footed delights of “Center Stage”

Center Stage The cast of "Center Stage."

Nicholas Hytner’s coming-of-age dance picture still holds a special place in the hearts of Millennial women twenty years on.

There is a special subset of movies in everyone’s collection that they know by heart. Movies that maybe aren’t prestige pictures or major blockbusters, but are solid, comfortable, reliable films, ones that you can pick up at whatever point you turn to them on TV, or can watch on any number of sick days. These are the movies of sleepovers and hungover Sundays; they’re comfort viewings and quarantine necessities. 2000’s Center Stage is one such movie, a coming-of-age dance picture that has pride of place in the hearts of a generation of (primarily) Millennial women, possibly more now 20 years after its release than it had at the time.

If you’ve seen Center Stage, a variety of scenes and images are going through your head right now. Eva putting out a cigarette with her toe shoe! Cooper Nielson riding onto stage during his own ballet on a motorcycle! Jody performing a unnecessarily drawn-out ballet sex scene in front of an audience that incudes her parents! Everything going on with Maureen’s bangs! Funny, touching, silly, and sweet, Center Stage is a delight from opening montage to ending montage.

Directed by theater and film director Nicholas Hytner and written by Carol Heikkinen (who also wrote comfort movie favorite Empire Records), Center Stage features dancers who can act, actors who can look like they’re dancing, and one professional ice skater who is doing his best. Though the performances aren’t always incredible, the stunning choreography by Susan Stroman helps to ease the story around its rough patches, as do the dances from famous ballets that are peppered throughout so as to showcase the fictitious company’s best dancers. 

Center Stage
“Center Stage”

The plot of Center Stage isn’t here to blow anyone’s mind. We follow Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) as she is accepted to the American Ballet Academy in New York City and meets her expected motley crew of new friends and rivals. There’s Eva (Zoë Saldaña/Aesha Ash, as her dance double), the tough girl from Boston who isn’t there to follow anyone’s rules; Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), the Nice Love Interest; and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), the ice queen and perfect dancer.

Filling up the other friend slots are Sergei (Ilia Kulik), a Russian dancer who just wants to get a job with his girlfriend, and Erik (Shakiem Evans), who, unfortunately, is pigeonholed as the gay best friend. Deciding Jody’s fate on the staff side are tough love teacher Juliette Simone (Donna Murphy), American Ballet Company head Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), and company star/Bad Boy Cooper Nielson (Ethan Stiefel). 

Jody and friends face injury, eating disorders, the rigid expectations of ballet, and Jody’s woeful turnout (admonishments to mind said turnout are the “Toe pick!’ of Center Stage), culminating in the annual American Ballet Company workshop, wherein the students will perform in various ballets in the hope of being hired by ABC or another dance company. 

It’s this workshop that gives Center Stage its most iconic image: Jody, in a red ensemble she magically acquires mid-dance, turning triumphant pirouettes as Cooper and Charlie look on longingly. The workshop also gives the world Center Stage’s most quotable line: Maureen, having secretly dropped out in order to give Eva her role, tearfully telling her stage mother that “You didn’t have the feet. I don’t have the heart”. 

Melodramatic but endlessly quotable, that line perfectly encapsulates Center Stage’s timeless message: that these kids (and you, the viewer) are going to be okay. Jody, having proved herself to Jonathan and the other instructors, rebuffs Cooper’s romantic advances (having already learned that those aren’t worth it) but accepts a starring position in his company AND asks Charlie out. Eva, having shone in Maureen’s role, gets a place in ABC, and Maureen goes to college, where she’s seen in the ending montage, happy and healthy. It’s a good ending, a happy ending, where everyone gets what they wanted and earned, and the audience gets to smile and maybe feel a little bit inspired. 

None of this, of course, excuses the movie from its problematic elements. The film is overwhelmingly white, with entire classes of white dance extras in the ballet scenes. A Black dancer shows up in the corps of Cooper’s ballet during the workshop and you realize that you’re not sure if she’s been in any of the other scenes. 

Center Stage
Photo by Barry Wetcher

Jody’s brief liaison with Cooper starts when the two meet at a Broadway dance class, which is meant to underscore the strictness of the ballet world (the dancers in this class have FUN and eat MUFFINS), but also features the most diverse student body. Again, this shows up the whiteness of ABA, but with an undercurrent of “look at these wild urban dancers from the masses” that sours the message somewhat.

Two of the primary characters are people of color, with one (Eva) cast as the “urban” troublemaker and the other (Erik) relegated to her sassy gay best friend. Eva is the only one who seemingly disagrees with anything about ABA, but her legitimate complaints are overshadowed by the script having her also be the only one who smokes or swears or doesn’t come to class dressed appropriately. 

The scenes of Eva and Erik’s friendship are genuine and moving, but are really all that Erik gets to do. Erik’s sexuality is dealt with fairly well for a movie from 2000, but while he is openly gay, he certaintly never gets to do anything about it. He twice laments that Charlie is straight, but there is no love interest for Erik; like many gay chacters he is effectively made celibate. When a film is as rewatched as Center Stage, these elements are appropriately harder to ignore. 

Funny, touching, silly, and sweet, Center Stage is a delight from opening montage to ending montage.

Center Stage, aesthetically, is a glorious slice of The Year 2000. During the early “students arriving at ABA” montage, nearly every female student is wearing a pair of chunky black slides, a shoe so ubiquitously 1997-2001 that it’s wardrobe shorthand for precisely this time and this place. When Jody and friends aren’t in ballet gear, they’re in floral slip dresses or overalls, with simple necklaces and sparkly barrettes, and no one wears lipstick unless it’s for the stage. The brown floral dress inventories of 2000 New York City must have been decimated by the wardrobe department of this movie. It was a simpler, sparklier time. 

Some of that feeling is likely behind the fondness for this movie that myself and the majority of my similarly-aged friends have. I was 19 when Center Stage came out, so I was a little removed from the high school movies of the time, but a story of recent graduates struggling to find their place whilst sleeping with famous ballet dancers and wearing chunky shoes? I could relate to (most) of that. 

Center Stage is a snapshot of a very particular time in history, but also a very particular time in a young person’s life. Even the ABA students, who seemingly have their lives all figured out, really don’t have the handle on their futures that they think they do, and neither, really, does anyone at 18/19. Some themes are universal: we want to figure ourselves out, we want to be praised, we want our hard work to be appreciated. And maybe, just maybe, we want to imagine ourselves solving our problems in toe shoes. 

Center Stage Trailer:

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