“Ballet” is a dirty word in today’s Hollywood. If you want to raise a dance fever at the box office, bag the tights and bump and grind it with Fame, Flashdance and Dirty Dancing. Center Stage scores points for at least trying to defy that wisdom. Students bleed trying to defy that wisdom. Students bleed for their art at Manhattan’s American Ballet Academy under the fierce eye of Jonathan Reeves (the reliably fine Peter Gallagher). Jonathan and teacher Juliette Simone (Donna Murphy) come down hard on Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull), a blond dumpling who lacks the starving-swan body type required by ABA.
So far, so intriguing. Director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible) has a feel for this hothouse ballet environment. And he’s enlisted dancer Ethan Stiefel to make his acting debut as Cooper Nielson, a Harley-riding ballet megastar much like himself. Sascha Radetsky, another ballet pro, plays Charlie, the student who competes with Cooper for Jody’s affections. That romantic triangle becomes the basic for the modern-ballet sequence that ends the film. Choreographed by Susan Stroman, the Broadway wiz behind the sublime Contact and the revival of The Music Man, with new star Craig Bierko, the sequence is an ambitious flight of imagination that owes more to films like Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris than anything remotely possible onstage.
Sadly, the rest of the cliched script by Carol Heikkinen plays like Dawson’s Creek in toeshoes. Mini-dramas involving bulimia, homosexuality, adultery and pushy parents distract from the ballet. Other dance forms, including salsa and jazz, distract from the ballet. For Hytner, the problem of dancers who can’t act is intensified by actors who can’t dance, necessitating glaringly obvious stand-ins. The crowning insult comes when Jody rejects the classical for the current. No wonder ballet is a dirty word. I just didn’t expect this film to reinforce it.