It’s hard to believe twenty years have passed since the seminal ballet melodrama Center Stage danced into our lives on tippy toes and set the standard for the modern dance drama. Because before there was Step Up, Save the Last Dance, Honey, You Got Served, or even So You Think You Can Dance, there was the epic ballad of an effervescent ballerina named Jody Sawyer. 

Jody, played by San Francisco Ballet’s Amanda Schull, dreams of being a principal in the fictitious American Ballet Company and owning centerstage. However, she doesn’t have the ideal traditional body type, her technique is subpar, she’s got “bad feet,” and her turnout sucks. What could go wrong? The company’s director, Jonathan, a bourgeois aesthete played by Peter Gallagher, informs Ms. Sawyer in no uncertain terms that if she doesn’t get on point, it’s exit stage left. To make matters worse, Jody falls hard for the international ballet superstar and dreamy bad boy, Cooper Nielson played by Ethan Stiefel. Stiefel delivers a very credible performance as a heartsick, lecherous rebel, but beyond that, his dancing in this movie is a thing for the ages—absolutely next level; otherworldly! Honestly, Center Stage is a must-see for his dancing alone! 

If this all sounds a bit cheesy, well, it most certainly is. The story of a beautiful young scrapper holding firm to her dreams of flying through the air with the greatest of ease and finding true love in her spare time is absolutely cheeseball. But the film is handled with absolute care and earnest devotion, and there’s such respect given to the ballerina’s grinding, back-breaking journey, it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotions, heartbreak, and triumph of the discipline. 

And what a wise and prescient choice it turned out to be using actual ballet dancers in the principal roles. Does the acting suffer? To some degree, yes, of course. But what is lost is most definitely gained in the verisimilitude and intensity of the dance itself. And let’s face it, this is a full-on dance movie! One has to believe these kids can actually leap and spin and allegro with unparalleled facility, agility, and grace. Just about every choreographed number bristles with boundless energy and primordial animation. It’ll bring a smile to your face just marveling at the beauty of movement, and the overwhelming talent and skill on display.   

Center Stage boasts a terrific ensemble cast, including a feisty Zoe Saldana in one of her earliest roles, Susan May Pratt as Maureen, the mean girl with a dark secret, and Donna Murphy playing the no-nonsense ballet instructor Juliette to perfection. As well, the story of young people fighting for their dreams and forging a new and exciting path in their lives is credible and compelling, but the real star of this film is high-octane, viscerally exciting, mind-blowing toe dancing.

It can be credibly argued that Center Stage paved the way for many dance movies of the last twenty years, being a flood of similar films came out in its wake, including La La Land, High School Musical, Magic Mike, and The Company, among many others. Yes, it was preceded by Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and Fame, but Center Stage is a film solely focused on the blood, sweat, tears, determination, talent, and bravura of the singularly intriguing and beguiling world of ballet. And it used top-flight dancers with tremendous power and artistry to tell its inspiring story—a technique other dance movies used to great effect thereafter.

So, if you’re in the mood for a  classic rom-com on steroids, Center Stage might just make your Saturday night. And when you jump off the couch to bust some ersatz pirouettes and plies as the final credits roll, just make sure to…”Dance the sh** out of it!” 

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