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Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Talent aside, some people were born to dance



Center Stage

Rating: * * * Director: Nicholas Hytner Running time: 115 minutes Language: English, with Japanese subtitlesOpens May 12

Ballet lessons (along with violin and piano) are often forced upon us at a certain age and continue until we or our parents throw a major tantrum and we call it quits. There are some little girls, however, who take to the barre like the mafia to crime and show up for lessons with their hair in buns and wearing cute, expensive leotards. When the music starts, they raise themselves on little, little toes and walk all the way across the room, their faces transformed by rapture. It is in this instant that other less coordinated 10-year-olds (like this reviewer) vow to take up smoking as soon as possible and waste as much time as possible in the bathroom.

"Center stage": the dancers strut their stuff.

Such fond memories come rushing back with a movie called "Center Stage," which is a tale of what happens after those talented little girls grow into their late teens, start competing with others just as talented and gear themselves for the career track of professional dancing. Directed by Nicholas Hytner ("The Madness of King George"), "Center Stage" is not only great eye candy, it makes you rediscover the sheer physical beauty of bodies that can really, really dance. Of course there's that twinge of regret that comes from ditching ballet at age 11 for a life of slouching in front of a computer screen. But that's what movies are supposed to do to you.

"Center Stage" is set in the American Ballet Academy in New York, the summit of American performing arts and the coveted destination for any young dancer. The competition is stiff, the teachers are all ex-prima donnas who kept and honed their prima-donna attitudes, and every single student is highly talented and willing to work their legs off.

Into this environment walks ingenuous 18-year-old Jodie Sawyer (Amanda Schull), who according to the academy bigwigs "has the wrong body and bad feet," but is so passionate about her art she refuses to give up. Jodie's classmates Eva (Zoe Saldana) and Maureen (Susan May Pratt) have great technique but harbor private doubts about being in the academy at all. Jodie is the one who loves it but doesn't have what it takes; her two friends have the skills but lack the emotions.

Frustrated by herself and the instructors who keep hinting that she leave the academy "to do something different," Jodie goes to a downtown dancing class where the moves are about improvisation and real feelings. There she runs into academy star Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), who sees right away that Jodie's enthusiasm outweighs her bad feet. Cooper is a renegade anyway, full of ideas about bringing the streets into ballet and vice versa. He rides a Harley, lives in a loft and generally thinks himself above and beyond the directors of the ABA, namely the nit-picking Jonathan (Peter Gallagher), who holds the fate of every student dancer in his hands.

Cooper decides to make Jodie his principal dancer for the upcoming academy workshop, just to spite Jonathan and Co. They're putting on "Swan Lake," and Cooper choreographs the entire performance with distinctly grunge overtones.

"Center Stage" covers not just dancing but also the dancer mentality, shaped by their grueling daily programs and the fact that these programs are always carried out in front of full-length mirrors. The students are aware that a dancer has only 10 good years that could be diminished by any number of things: injuries, weight gain, backbiting conspiracies, etc.

Put these factors together and what you get is a roomful of people constantly locking gazes with themselves in the mirror, ready to swoon at their own beauty. Out of the entire academy, only Eva has any problems with that and vents her irritation by chewing gum in class or practicing late at night, in the dark where she can't see her reflection.

But even Eva discards her rebelliousness when it comes to putting on the workshop performance (the climax segment), which, by the way, will open up all sorts of longings and regrets, mainly to do with one's posture or one's legs. Ballet isn't just about movement; it's about physiques that are, in themselves, works of art. They strike the viewer so profoundly that the goings-on onstage are almost beside the point. No wonder rich old ladies throw money into dance companies and trot after dancers all over the globe.

Hope I've made my point. So. Get rid of this paper and get your feet into second-position plie.



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