Not many teen-movie fans can tell a plié from a pas de deux. But most of them do like the sight of good-looking young people in tights. The makers of "Center Stage" have that much figured out. So even though the filmmakers probably love ballet for the precision art form it is, they don't mind muddying its image with a little down-market sex appeal. The result is a pretty predictable summer camp epic interrupted by some gorgeous dance sequences and a little heavy breathing.
We follow girl next door Jody (Amanda Schull) as she knuckles under for the stern New York dance instructor (Peter Gallagher) who tells everyone how tough ballet is. She finds inspiration in rebellious star dancer Cooper (Ethan Stiefel), who treats ballet like a people's art, or at least like upscale Broadway hoofing. Meanwhile, she still has to get along with her classmates, like the sullen loner (Zoe Saldana) and the reluctant star (Susan May Pratt), as well as Mr. Right (Sascha Radetsky). What's a girl to do?
Well, here, it's pirouette away from the stuffy traditions of ballet and break new ground in dance (but only after all that diverting romantic stuff gets sorted out). Cue music! Curtain up! And dance!
"Center Stage" marks a striking turn for director Nicholas Hytner, best known for his studies of insanity ("The Madness of King George") and mass hysteria ("The Crucible"). While he doesn't coax anything from his young cast that we haven't seen many times before, he stages his many dance sequences with loving care.
Writer Carol Heikkinen is on solid ground, and in fact this movie bears more than a passing resemblance to her debut script, "The Thing Called Love," about a group of aspiring singer/songwriters in Nashville. That 1993 movie was the last role for River Phoenix and provided a showcase for Dermot Mulroney and Sandra Bullock. There's no breakout performance in "Center Stage," but any one of these good-looking faces could wind up in next summer's blockbuster.
Schull, especially, could perk up any plot in need of fresh-scrubbed good looks and athleticism. And Pratt's already established that she can play nasty in "10 Things I Hate About You." As for whether this flick will make your summer, don't count on it. Unless you really have an affection for dance, you'll likely find yourself easily distracted during the soap-operatic nature of the petty infighting between students, their parents and mentors. Better you should find a partner and shuffle on out to the dance floor yourself.
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