Movie review of Center Stage

Friday, May 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Gee, it's tough being a ballet dancer. The toes bleed; pizza is a no-no, and teacher harps on "turn out," "turn out," "turn out" - when she's not stopping class because you dared do a triple pirouette instead of a double.

Ballet fans will love "Center Stage" for all its insider dishing. Love it, yes, and groan over the gaffes.

"The Red Shoes" it is not. Nor even "The Turning Point," the 1977 film that made a matinee idol out of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Like its predecessors, "Center Stage" is of two minds about ballet, kicking it in the shins for its heartlessness while going ga-ga over the pyrotechnics.

The movie opens with an audition, where young hopefuls sweat to get into the prestigious American Ballet Academy (modeled on New York's School of American Ballet). But that's just the first stage. Once in, only six will be invited to join American Ballet Company at the end of the year. "Is that six from this group?" asks a worried mother. "No, it's six from the planet," replies another.

Pretty blonde Jody (Amanda Schull) makes the grade. So does angry, rebellious Eva (Zoe Saldana).

They end up sharing a dorm room with the icy Maureen (Susan May Pratt), who's long been the fair-haired girl of American Ballet Academy.

Their male counterparts - Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), Erik (Shakiem Evans) and Sergei (Ilia Kulik) - have an easier time of it, but then, they don't wear pointe shoes. Girls survey the boys' class from a doorway, inquiring about sexual orientation. "He's straight!" they exclaim incredulously, delighted to learn how Charlie and Sergei swing.

Not that ballet students have much chance to swing, they're so busy perfecting their plies. When pre-med student Jim (Eion Bailey) pursues the haughty Maureen, she rejects him out of hand. After all, she has only 10 good years to dance, and a boyfriend is about as helpful to that career as the verboten pizza. (She samples both in good time.)

So, where does this leave Ethan Stiefel, the real-life star of American Ballet Theatre, and the movie's putative heartthrob? Riding his Harley-Davidson, for one, when he's not executing electrifying leaps, Barysnikov style, or seducing the fresh-faced Jody. As Cooper, ABC's hot-shot star, he can break all the rules he wants, which he does with cool, ironic and good-natured impunity.

In the ballet world, breaking rules means chewing gum in class (gasp!) and sneaking off to take downtown jazz dance class, where the students smile and smile, they're having so much fun. No one has fun at uptight ballet school, where teachers delight in grinding souls down to uniform size. Somehow Cooper and Jody end up sneaking off to the same jazz class, where they have a whale of a good time shaking their booties.

The jazz excursion prefigures the preposterous climax, which involves a dopey ballet, Cooper's motorcycle, a last-minute surprise cast change and what passes, in Hollywood's mind, as daring choreography.

If you have the remotest interest in ballet, "Center Stage" is impossible to pass up.