Take a bit of "Fame", throw in a number of fresh-faced ballet dancers, and you get something like "Center Stage", a film that is memorable for its choreographed dancing... and not much else. Saddled with a schmaltzy soap opera-type script and real ballet dancers with little acting experience, "Center Stage" is a barely tolerable behind-the-scenes drama that takes place in a top ballet school, and will probably garner interest (and patience) only from fans of the art form.
The story opens with Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) auditioning for a place in the prestigious American Ballet Academy in New York. Though her 'bad feet' are a black mark against her, her flawless good looks score some points with the director of the American Ballet Company (Peter Gallagher of "American Beauty") and she wins a prestigious place in the upcoming class.
Upon her arrival at the school, she is quickly introduced to her new circle of friends, who are the usual suspects of character archetypes that dominate the genre. Maureen (Susan May Pratt of "10 Things I Hate About You") is the best dancer in the school, yet doesn't have the heart for the craft, despite the constant pressure applied by her demanding mother (Debra Monk of "Bulworth"). Eva (Zoe Saldana) also has good ability, but her bad attitude makes it difficult for her to get along with her instructors. Sergei (Ilia Kulik, 1998 gold medal winner in Olympic figure skating) is the token foreign student, while Erik (Eion Bailey) is the token gay guy, both of them ensuring that the comic relief is covered. Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) is a good-looking dancer from Seattle who got into ballet to 'pick up chicks'. Finally, there is Cooper (Ethan Stiefel, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre), an accomplished dancer and choreographer who takes a fancy to Jody.
The story then quickly drives home the point that ballet is hard work, as the chief instructor Juliette (Donna Murphy of "Star Trek: Insurrection"), a former ballerina, pushes her students through a grueling program. Of course, to keep things interesting for the teen demographic, it's not all work and no play. As the story progresses, we are treated to scenes of the characters bonding through raucous horseplay, or tearing up the dance floor at a local Latin hotspot. Jody, in addition to having serious doubts about her own abilities, finds herself torn between her infatuation with Cooper and a budding friendship with Charlie. And if that isn't enough melodrama, the unrelenting pressure to excel drives Maureen into a bulimic frenzy, while Eva's bad attitude causes her to butt heads with everyone. You can pretty well predict what happens from here-- there are few surprises offered in the film's final act, as every narrative move is telegraphed from afar.
About the only interesting aspect of "Center Stage" is the dancing, since director Nicholas Hytner ("The Object of My Affection") cast real ballet dancers into the majority of the roles. If you are an aficionado of ballet, then you'll find the film's numerous dance sequences of interest (which tended to run on the long side). Two of the film's highlight pieces come at the film's conclusion, when a momentous performance is put on before a packed house-- a traditional ballet, and an odd Broadway musical/ballet hybrid that mirrors the events in the film. Not being an avid follower of the art form, I cannot speak to the quality of the ballet itself, but the audience members around me seemed quite amazed.
Unfortunately, the casting decisions are also the film's weakness. The acting is barely adequate in this film, with some of the worst offenders being Radetsky, who maintains the same stilted line delivery throughout, and Saldana, whose chip-on-the-shoulder bearing becomes a little overbearing at times. Coupled with some truly banal dialogue and the hokey situations that the characters are placed into, the end result is as credible and palatable as your average daytime soap.
There is little to recommend "Center Stage" on, other than the ballet sequences, which I'm sure would appease any ballet nut. Unfortunately, the "90210" trappings of the story, along with the amateur performances, quickly overwhelm whatever good intentions there were. Even fans of ballet might want to skip this one, since their money would be better spent towards a night of real ballet, thereby avoiding all the melodramatic drivel.