Los Angeles Times

Center Stage


Friday May 12, 2000

     From "The Red Shoes" to "The Turning Point," dramatic films about the ballet world have begged the question: How is it that such a serious and disciplined performing art attracts such silly and chaotic people?
     The callow young dance aspirants in "Center Stage" weren't even born when Mikhail Baryshnikov flaunted his famous leaps in "The Turning Point" (1977). But the tensions and obstacles are as unchanging as the Lincoln Center plaza where his co-stars Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft ripped each other's hair out: sex, family, competition and making choices.
     "Center Stage" is a quintessential backstage-movie cocktail, about four parts hooey to one part reality, chased by a big swig of high-stepping razzle-dazzle. Written with transparent ink by Carol Heikkinen, it follows the tribulations of a sextet of ballet students as they train at the ultra-competitive American Ballet Academy (helmed by that swan prince of arrogance, Peter Gallagher).
     All of the neophytes have been cast with professional dancers, which makes for some wobbly toed performances. There is the naive but determined Jody (Amanda Schull); the rebellious, smart-mouthed Eva (Zoe Saldana); the bulimic diva-in-training, Maureen (a convincing Susan May Pratt); the All-American hunk from Seattle, Charlie (Sascha Radetsky); the Russian roue, Sergei (Ilia Kulik); and the token black homosexual with no personal life, Erik (Shakeim Evans).
     Typically, "Center Stage" hyperventilates in an effort to show that all male dancers are not pansies, so Heikkinen unambiguously asserts the sexual orientation of every guy in their first lines of dialogue. Within minutes, Erik is cruising Charlie, Charlie is swooning for Jody, Jody is falling for international star Cooper (American Ballet Theater headliner Ethan Stiefel, a rather terrible actor), Maureen is succumbing to the advances of a premed student, and Sergei is striking out at every turn.
     We don't really care about any of this, because "Center Stage" only really kicks in when it is dancing, which is about half the time. Susan Stroman, the reigning Miss Thing of Broadway hoofing, makes her film choreography debut with mixed results. Predictably, her best work is the "Flashdance"-like stuff at a disco or in a Broadway dance class. The more ambitious crossover piece at the big closing performance, weaving urban iconography into classical ballet language, might seem clever and even electric in live performance but seems a bit dumb as captured on film.
     It's rarely boring, because director Nicholas Hytner ("The Crucible," "The Madness of King George") knows how to energize theater-oriented work. But he's used to far better material, and it feels like he's slumming here. He has recruited a dandy group of New York actors to play the grown-ups, so we can revel in Debra Monk as an overbearing stage mother and the wonderful Donna Murphy, who penetrates the artifice with genuine feeling as the most sympathetic of the dance instructors.
     "A Chorus Line's" charismatic Priscilla Lopez makes an exuberant impression as a jazz dance teacher, an all-too-brief cameo that leaves us with the sobering suggestion of what awaits those who are lucky enough to grab their 15 minutes of dance fame.

Center Stage, 2000. PG-13 for language and some sensuality. Columbia Pictures presents a Laurence Mark production of a Nicholas Hytner film. Director Nicholas Hytner. Producer Laurence Mark. Screenplay Carol Heikkinen. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson. Editor Tariq Anwar. Costume designer Ruth Myers. Music George Fenton. Production designer David Gropman. Art director Peter Rogness. Set decorator Susan Bode. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog. John Tormey as Louie. Sonny Valerio as Cliff Gorman. Frank Minucci as Big Angie. Richard Portnow as Handsome Frank. Tricia Vessey as Louise Vargo. Henry Silva as Ray Vargo. Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich. Albert Finney as Ed Masry. Aaron Eckhart as George. Marg Helgenberger as Donna Jensen. Cherry Jones as Pamela Duncan. Peter Coyote as Kurt Potter. Shane West as Ryan. Jodi Lyn O'Keefe as Ashley. Marla Sokoloff as Maggie. Richard Schiff as Gym coach. Aaron Paul as Floyd. Chris Klein as Kelley. Leelee Sobieski as Samantha. Josh Hartnett as Jasper. Michael Rooker as Jasper's father. Roshan Seth as Gustad Noble. Om Puri as Ghulam. Soni Razdan as Dilnavaz Noble. Naseeruddin Shah as Jimmy Bilimoria. Margherita Buy as Caterina. Silvio Orlando as Ernesto. Carolina Freschi as Teresa. Alessandro di Natale as Gabriele. Billy Crudup as Fielding Pierce. Jennifer Connelly as Sarah Williams. Janet McTeer as Caroline Pierce. Hal Holbrook as Isaac Green. Cameron Van Hoy as Stevie. Mischa Barton as Rocky. Burt Reynolds as Daniel Bender. Adam Farrar as Wheelchair Man. Nancho Novo as Max. Cayetana Guillen Cuervo as Monica. Ingrid Rubio as Yeye. Beatriz Santiago as Maria. Gustavo Salmeron as Alberto. Mohsen Ramezani as Mohammad. Hossein Mahjub as Hashem. Salime Feizi as Granny. Elham Sharim as Hanyeh. Farahnaz Safari as Bahareh. Aidan Gillen as Francis. Emmanuelle Seigner as Gloria. Susan Tyrrell as Sal. Mark Boone Jr. as Vic. Joshua Jackson as Luke McNamara. Paul Walker as Caleb Mandrake. Hill Harper as Will Beckford. Leslie Bibb as Chloe. Craig T. Nelson as Litten Mandrake. Jimmy Smits as Arturo Ortega. Maria Del Mar as Rita Ortega. Jon Seda as Sonny Ortega. Clifton Collins Jr. as Jimmy Ortega. Ernesto Hernandez as Johnny Ortega. Ron Perlman as Nick Everson. John Cusack as Rob. Iben Hjejle as Laura. Todd Louiso as Dick. Jack Black as Barru. Lisa Bonet as Marie De Salle. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Charlie. Voice Talent as . Kevin Kline as Tulio. Kenneth Branagh as Miguel. Rosie Perez as Chel. Armand Assante as Tzekel-Kan. Edward James Olmos as The Chief. Scott Caan as Scotty. Robert Downey Jr. as Terry. Stacy Edwards as Sheila. Gaby Hoffman as Raven. Jeanie Dryden as Patsy. Linal Haft as Vic. Russell Dykstra as Bo. Genevieve Lemon as Josie. Sacha Horler as Nadia. Alicia Talbot as Vera. Rachel Griffiths as Pamela Drury. David Roberts as Robert Dickson. Sandy Winton as Ben. Yael Stone as Stacey. Floriane Daniel as Rebecca. Heino Ferch as Marco. Ulrich Matthes as Rene. Marie-Lou Sellem as Laura. Josef Bierbichler as Theo. Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie. Oleg Menchikov as Alexei. Catherine Deneuve as Gabrielle. Sergei Bodrov Jr. as Sacha. David Arquette as Gordie. Scott Caan as Sean. Oliver Platt as Jimmy King. Bill Goldberg as Goldberg. Rose McGowan as Sasha. David Duchovny as Bob Rueland. Minnie Driver as Grace Briggs. Carroll O'Connor as Marty O'Reilly. Robert Loggia as Angelo Pardipillo. Ian Holm as Joe Gould. Stanley Tucci as Joseph Mitchell. Patricia Clarkson as Vivian Marquie. Hope Davis as Therese Mitchell. Susan Sarandon as Alice Neel. Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Hays Hodges. Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Terry Childers. Guy Pearce as Maj. Mark Biggs. Bruce Greenwood as William Sokal. Blair Underwood as Capt. Lee. Ben Kingsley as Ambassador Mourain. Paul Newman as Henry. Linda Fiorentino as Carol. Dermot Mulroney as Wayne. Om Puri as George Khan. Linda Bassett as Ella Khan. Jimi Mistry as Tariq Khan. Raji James as Abdul Khan. Ben Stiller as Jake. Edward Norton as Brian. Jenna Elfman as Anna. Anne Bancroft as Ruth. Sandra Bullock as Gwen Cummings. Viggo Mortensen as Eddie Boone. Dominic West as Jasper. Diane Ladd as Bobbie Jean. Elizabeth Perkins as Lily. Steve Buscemi as Cornell. Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman. Willem Dafoe as Donald Kimball. Jared Leto as Paul Allen. Reese Witherspoon as Evelyn Williams. Samantha Mathis as Courtney Rawlinson. Chloe Sevigny as Jean. Damian Delgado as Topiltzin/Tomas. Jose Carlos Rodriguez as Fray Diego. Elpidia Carrillo as Tecuichpo/Don~a Isabel. In~aki Aierra as Hernando Cortes. Kevin Spacey as Larry. Danny DeVito as Phil. Peter Facinelli as Bob. Paul Campbell as Capone. Mark Danvers as Ratty. Cark Bradshaw as Wonie. Audrey Reid as Rita. Winston Bell as Floyd. Lenford Salmon as Not Nice. Matthew Brown as Brandon Allen. Richard Dutcher as Marcus Dalton. DeSean Terry as Elder Banks. Michael Buster as Elder Kinegar. Keeley Hawes as Lois Farquar. Fiona Shaw as Marda Norton. Maggie Smith as Lady Myra Naylor. Michael Gambon as Sir Richard Naylor. Natalie Portman as Novalee Nation. Ashley Judd as Lexie Coop. Stockard Channing as Sister Husband. Joan Cusack as Ruth Meyers. Mark Addy as Fred Flintstone. Stephen Baldwin as Barney Rubble. Kristen Johnston as Wilma Slaghoople. Jane Krakowski as Betty O'Shale. Thomas Gibson as Chip Rockefeller. Joan Collins as Pearl Slaghoople. Alan Cumming as Gazoo and Mick Jagged. Harvey Korman as Colonel Slaghoople. Salma Hayek as Rose. Stellan Skarsgard as Alex Green. Jeanne Tripplehorn as Lauren Hathaway. Saffron Burrows as Emma Green. Heather Graham as Joline. Casey Affleck as Jay. Luke Wilson as Carl. Goran Visnjic as Neil. Alfonso Arau as Grampy. Patricia Velasquez as Carmen. Dennis Quaid as Frank Sullivan. Jim Caviezel as John Sullivan. Andre Braugher as Satch DeLeon. Elizabeth Mitchell as Julia Sullivan. Noah Emmerich as Gordo Hersch. Shawn Doyle as Jack Shepard. Evelina Fernandez as Andrea. Scott Bakula as Joseph. Marta Du Bois as Sofia. Angela Moya as Lilly. Dyana Ortelli as Irene. John Simm as Jip. Lorraine Pilkington as LuLu. Shaun Parkes as Koop. Nicola Reynolds as Nina. Danny Dyer as Moff. Dean Davies as Lee. Kristin Scott Thomas as Mary Panton. Sean Penn as Rowley Flint. Anne Bancroft as Princess San Ferdinando. James Fox as Sir Edgar Swift. Jeremy Davies as Karl Richter. Derek Jacobi as Lucky Leadbetter. Massimo Ghini as Beppino Leopardi. Peter Coyote as Martin Conlon. Karen Allen as Bessie Emery. Robert Karl Burke as Helmut Brink. Amber Willenborg as Brigitta Brink. Drew Pillsbury as Wade Hampton. Wendie Malick as Jane. Scott McKenna as Cal. Beth Kennedy as Pamela Hampton. Hikari Ishida as Shizuko Sato. Masanobu Ando as Satoru Suzuki. Yutaka Matushige as Kuroiwa. Jovi Jova as Kuroiwa's hooligans. Kim Basinger as Kuki Gallmann. Vincent Perez as Paolo Gallmann. Eva Marie Saint as Franca. Liam Aiken as Emanuele, age 7. Lance Reddick as Simon. Garrett Strommen as Emanuele, age 17. Russell Crowe as Maximus. Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus. Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius. Connie Nielson as Lucilla. Djimon Hounsou as Juba. Oliver Reed as Proximo. Amanda Schull as Jody. Zoe Saldana as Eva. Susan May Pratt as Maureen. Peter Gallagher as Jonathan. Sascha Radetsky as Charlie.

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