Film: Dance Hall Drama

'Center Stage' emphasizes the authenticity of its movie ballerinas

May 11, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Center Stage

Center Stage is a new ballet drama where a group of attractive Dawson's Creek kids enter an elite New York ballet school in the hopes they will one day become superstars. They're not the nicest bunch in the world. They make petty remarks and thrive on the misfortune of their colleagues. If so-and-so breaks an ankle or is too fat to go out on stage, that's one less competitor and fuel for at least a couple of weeks of bathroom snickering.

It follows in the footsteps of another cynical movie about dance called Showgirls. In this vein, Center Stage may be unwittingly taking the lofty pretension out of the world of ballet. But is this portrait true to the world of budding dancers?

"I've dealt with jealousy and the back-stabbing," says Amanda Schull, a recent addition to the San Francisco Ballet Company who plays aspiring starlet Jody Sawyer in the film. "It's unfortunate that there are so many dancers and so few roles. I've been resented for things that I've gotten."

So there you have it. If you thought ballerinas out-classed showgirls, you were dead wrong.

In Center Stage, the dancers outnumber the thespians. It's the same throughout film history. When the time came to shoot the definitive ballet classic, The Red Shoes, a tale about an up-and-coming prodigy torn between a passionate composer and the rigid, autocratic company head, the filmmakers didn't call up Ingrid Bergman or Katherine Hepburn. They brought in ballerina Moira Shearer.

In theory, there's nothing wrong with any of this. Every once in awhile, a filmmaker really pulls off a winner using this method (Larry Clark's Kids for example), but it's interesting that they would find it necessary when there are so many films that depict special skills that regular actors don't have. Tom Cruise couldn't fly an F-16 Tomcat for Top Gun, Kevin Costner didn't strike anybody out in For the Love of the Game, and Harrison Ford would never have come out of that Middle Eastern cave alive in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But ballet dramas insist on the genuine articles, and producer Laurence Mark, the money man who was also behind Jerry Maguire and As Good As It Gets, says Center Stage is no exception.

"We're selling the dance because we feel it's the one thing that's different," Mark says. "This type of movie hasn't been done in awhile. The problem with movies lately is that they all sound the same, especially the teen movies. Even the teen audiences are like, 'What is this? We've seen this already.' And we'd rather sell the real thing than an actress, because an actress couldn't do the big ballet scene. Of course, you can always use a double, but it's just not necessary when you can just put the actual dancer out there, not to mention it's a major pain in the butt."

The obsession with realism isn't lost on the actors, and they find themselves commenting on it often without realizing what they're saying. Veteran actor Peter Gallagher, who starred in such films as To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday, sex, lies, and videotape, and most recently, American Beauty, says he went out of his way to be respectful to the dancing profession. Jonathan Reeves, his character in the film, is a ruthlessly blunt former dancer, now running the New York school. Gallagher feared delivering some "pathetic performance of a guy that used to dance." He says that director Nicholas Hytner went out of his way to create the most authentic environment possible so the dancers would "never really be in a position to lie" or to "engage in behavior that isn't familiar to them."

Never mind that this is a movie and, theoretically, it's his craft that should matter most in that particular setting. But for people like Schull, this level of accuracy is important, because it reflects her own experience and she doesn't want to see it trivialized or distorted.

"I thought Hollywood would glam it up and be real outlandish," she says. "But they touch on nearly all the elements of a dancer's life. I've seen everything that this movie touches on: anorexia, bulimia ... I liked this movie because it didn't hide the ugly side. It didn't just show the little ballerinas coming out in their tutus, and isn't that just so pretty? People have no idea what we put our bodies through, what we put our minds through, what we put our lives through."

In 1977, The Turning Point was released. It starred Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft as lifelong friends who took different paths. They were both promising dancers but while Bancroft went on to fame and fortune, MacLaine left the stage to get married when she discovered she was pregnant. Despite two charismatic actresses, The Turning Point was bogged down by juvenile squabbles and the flak over who was bedding whom. It didn't help that Mikhail Baryshnikov appears as a horny Lothario. Then again, while the Center Stage filmmakers pay deference to this film, they're only concerned with one thing.

"Fame, Turning Point, and Red Shoes were all reference points," says Mark. "But we feel those movies had a different agenda. The Turning Point wanted to celebrate classical dance. But we incorporated Salsa music, and dancing to Michael Jackson and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, which The Turning Point did not do."

According to Mark, the idea to do a ballet drama originated with Columbia Pictures head Amy Pascal. She was apparently banking on the hope that people will come see it for no other reason than it offers something they can't get in the current film climate. The studio execs had their doubts.

"Getting an audience to see any film can be difficult," says Mark. "But once they're in there, what we discovered was that they really liked the dancing. That was our test, because we were concerned whether there was too much Classical music."

Regardless of how Center Stage fares at the box office, the people involved have definite ideas of how this type of film should be made, and they'll never question whether they did the right thing. Lawrence Mark's comments about Ethan Stiefel, one of the film's costars who is also one of the leading ballet dancers in the world, are the most indicative.

"I'd hate to see Ethan in a movie where he doesn't dance," he said. "To put him in a movie where he just acts would be a complete waste of time. Because nobody can do what he does." ©