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A Chorus Line of Cliches

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2000


    'Center Stage' Ethan Stiefel, Amanda Schull and Sascha Radetsky in "Center Stage." (Columbia)
"Center Stage" is all dancing and hugging and no good.

The backstage drama, directed by Nicholas Hytner (who made the wonderful "The Madness of King George"), is about squeezing bloody feet into ballet shoes, sneaking to the bathroom for a nightly purge, bitching about that rival dancer who doesn't have your delicate chops and dreaming of the day when the director of the ABT (that's the American Ballet Thea-tra) invites you into the company.

One is always "invited" to the ABT, by the way. To be "recruited" is for steroidal athletes who've never heard of them – paz de duh.

As the movie opens, it's time to meet the new crop of students invited to training sessions at the ABT, all of them dying to join the company proper. There's eager little Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull); Eva (Zoe Saldana), a street gal with head-jerking attitude; and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a haughty little purger, whose pushy mother is apparently driving the girl to anorexia.

Other characters include Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), an attractive male dancer who holds a candle for Jody, and Erik (Shakiem Evans), a sweet-natured, gay dancer with tender bedside sympathy for hurting souls. And then there's Cooper Nielson (Ethan Stiefel), a studly prince of a dancer whose aspirations of running his own troupe put him in regular conflict with Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), the unctuous ABT director.

To run through everyone's tedious little character-forming episode could induce narcolepsy on my part (and yours), so let me just say that everyone finds the resolution they deserve.

Dance enthusiasts can certainly enjoy "Center Stage" on a strictly dancing level. I have to say that Stiefel, who plays a sort of Mikhail Brat-nikov character and womanizer, is a sensational performer. I'm not sure male bodies should be allowed to do that. As his latest romantic conquest and the lead-dancer in his new troupe, Schull is also charming and clearly more than adept on her toes.

But remember, dance fans, you must sit through one of the cheesiest young-people-dreaming-of-triumph fables since the wretched "Fame" TV series.

Screenwriter Carol Heikkinen (whose "Empire Records" pirouetted directly to video), crowds the movie with cliches stolen from every dance movie from "42nd Street" to "Dirty Dancing." Despite yourself, you start looking forward to the next howler she's going to produce, including the hackneyed heartbreak Jody's going to suffer at the rakish hands of Cooper.

"Do you think I'm an idiot to date Cooper?" she asks pal Charlie, way after it has become obvious that Cooper's a snake in the grass. This is a cue for the audience to scream: "Yeeesssssss!"

And then there's Maureen, finally telling her mother to stop bullying her into ballet.

"You didn't have the feet," wails Maureen. "I don't have the heart."

One more line like that and I was going to throw sweaty leotards at the screen.

CENTER STAGE (PG-13, 113 minutes) – Contains obscenity and sexual situations.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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