I do love a good dance movie. If we’re talking about sequels that are better than their predecessors, then I tend to bypass the obvious Godfather example and go straight to Step Up 2: The Streets, which despite the lack of Channing Tatum, (or Tatum Channing? I can never remember) has significantly better choreography and a central couple you can really get behind, you know? But in fact Center Stage seems to be the only dance film I actually own, which even disregarding the US spelling that my heart rebels with every beat against, doesn’t make a lot of sense. OK, Footloose is mainly tractor drag racing, Magic Mike is technically stripping, Billy Elliot makes me cry too much and if I wanted to watch someone de-skin their own finger I would be a different person entirely, Natalie Portman. But there’s Strictly Ballroom for the romance, Save the Last Dance for classic-era Julia Styles, Silver Linings Playbook for Oscar class, Singing in the Rain and Top Hat for the dancing and Dirty Dancing, ironically, for almost everything except the dancing. The fact is, Center Stage is not a good film – the script is clunky, the storyline is entirely predictable, it’s loaded with stock characters, the romance is so obvious it might as well be telegraphed with those mountain-top pyres they use in Lord of the Rings, and the majority of the cast are professional ballet dancers, and as actors… they make very good professional ballet dancers.
But still, there it is on the shelf, and on a rewatch, I get it all over again. Like most genre films, dance movies need to follow a few rules to be supremely satisfying – we should have a main character who just has to dance and despite the obstacles and challenges put in their way will eventually triumph in the performance/ competition/ car park dance-off. There will be injury worries, there will be bitchy rivals, there will be silly costumes, there will be training montages, there will be a bit when the protagonist dances alone in a dark studio, and there will be an unspoken suggestion that anyone can be a successful dancer if they just ’follow their heart’. Dance movies should make you leave the cinema buzzing slightly, walking taller and generally wondering just how you’re going to get those crazy kids together and put on a show. And Center Stage has all this – except behind it, and perhaps unintentionally, there’s something a bit darker going on.
It begins bouncily enough. We know early on that Jody, our protagonist, may be battling a few problems with technique (‘Bad feet!’ hisses an instructor like a pantomime baddie) but passes her audition to a prestigious ballet school anyway, apparently on the strength of smiling nicely just like your mum used to tell you to do. In best dance-movie style, there are the usual challenges she must overcome to achieve her ambition of being picked out of the school line-up to join the main company – not just the duff feet and bad turnout* but also the headache of choosing between the inevitable two guys vying (if slightly unreliably) for her attentions: fellow student Charlie (nice guy, nice dancer, nice eyelashes) and star dancer Cooper (sleazy smile, regrettable leather jacket/ motorbike combo, equally regrettable chat up lines: ‘Hop on. We’ll go for a ride’). This in itself is probably enough content for your average dance movie, but alongside the standard message of ‘don’t you wish you were a ballerina?’ there’s a conflicting (and possibly unintentional) whisper that we should be careful what we wish for, because being a professional ballet dancer looks awful. ‘Am I a bad mother if I hope she doesn’t get it?’ asks Jody’s mum (who presumably wishes she’d never told her daughter the thing about smiling) and you can only think you’d be an unfit mother to encourage it, frankly.
There’s an early establishing montage that shows students travelling to their morning classes at the ballet school. Backs ramrod straight, hair tightly corralled, refusing to sweat out of sheer principle, they glide through the crowds of dishevelled, slouchy commuters like visiting aliens disdaining to blend in past the absolute basics needed to maintain their cover on earth. It’s a great, subtle touch (and again possibly unintentional, since this is not exactly a subtle movie), because it introduce a major theme that runs through the film: ballet dancers and not like me and you. You are one of those sweaty commuters, and they are from another planet.
But Center Stage isn’t much interested in showing the difference between dancers and everyone else here on earth. It’s occupied with dividing the aliens themselves. Because you might think you’re a ballet dancer, you might have worked all your life to be one and you might even have passed the audition, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll be good enough. Whisper it quietly, but you might not be an alien at all. In the end, you might actually just be a puny human.
Alongside the gnarly close-ups of ravaged feet and the hovering threat of sprained ankles, darker dangers lurk. Eating disorders, surely the elephant in the room of any discipline that combines teenage girls with a requirement to maintain a body weight equal to being lifted above head height on one hand, hover over this film like the odour of old pointe shoes. Emily, initially considered a shoo-in for a coveted place in the company, is gradually reduced to being the subject of ominous comments on her weight (whilst maintaining a figure indistinguishable from any of the other characters). ‘Her pas de deux partner’s going to need a crane to life her’ sniggers Maureen, ice queen and rising star of the group. ‘She’s getting big. Jonathan hates big’ mutters another dancer gleefully, with a tone that suggests the Director will shortly be ushering her into an oven like the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel, fit now only for the pot. There’s never any doubt where this is headed: ‘They told me I don’t take enough pride in my body’ she says tearfully, as her indignant mother admonishes the remaining dancers: ‘I want you girls to promise me you won’t let anyone make you feel bad about yourselves, OK? You’re perfect the way god made you.’ This is all very well and good, if it wasn’t entirely contradicted by every other character in the film, from the Director himself (marvellously if distractingly played by Seth Cohen’s Dad’s eyebrows), to Maureen’s own mum, a frustrated ex-dancer who, when her daughter tearfully asks ‘If I was happy, would I be throwing up half of everything I eat?’ replies chillingly, ‘So you watch your weight, there’s nothing wrong with that!’
Maureen eventually escapes the dance life and goes to college, and Jody will be snatched out of the traditional route to join Cooper’s brash new non-traditional company. But Seth Cohen’s dad’s eyebrows and all those teachers relentlessly badgering students about their weight, their feet, their attitude, will still be there the next day, doing what they do best. The director was Nicholas Hytner, who is probably keener to tell people at dinner parties about his work on The Crucible, The History Boys and the Madness of King George – but he’s also the Director of the National Theatre in London. Together with all those professional dancers, who know more than most the pressures of the ballet sphere, he’s put together a film which might look as fluffy as hell on the surface, but is also a testament to the ruthlessness of this world and the people in it – and what’s fascinating is that it never apologises for any of it. Instead it tacitly acknowledges that this is what it takes to produce classical ballet dancers. ‘The first day never counts’ someone says. ‘Everything counts here’ says another dancer, bleakly. If you want to watch the hypnotically coordinated Dance of the Cygnets in Swan Lake and marvel at all the good little aliens, then this is the system that produced them. Don’t eat the sausages unless you’re prepared to know how they were made.
In the end, you might have the heart, but this movie tells us that that’s not enough – not for classical ballet, anyway. The truth is, however much you want to dance, you’re probably not cut out for it. And thank goodness for that, eh?
And thank goodness also that whatever dark heart beats in this movie, we’re largely insulated from it by layer on layer of pluck, determination, good fortune, mismatched leg warmers and nice boys with good eyelashes. The film’s closing sequence is classic dance movie, involving improbable costume changes, overly literal reinterpretations of the entire plot, motorbikes on stage, sassy pointe work and some pelvic thrusts that surely aren’t in the official ballet handbook. And all this set to the delicate strains of Jamiroquoi. Excellent work, Center Stage. And if I may say so, lovely turnout.
*Turnout for the uninitiated: Stand up, feet together, facing forwards. Draw an imaginary (or – don’t let me stop you – actual) line down the front of your legs from the top of your thighs right down to your middle toe, like a trouser crease. Now turn your feet out to the sides in the classic ballet position, and crucially, also turn out those imaginary lines as far as you possibly can. If it feels like your bum cheeks could annihilate a stress ball right now, you’re doing it right. Now maintain that position while you go about your day. Why, you’re practically a ballet dancer already! You’re almost certainly better at it than poor old Jody. You’re welcome.
All screen grabs © Columbia Pictures