Ballet bad girl

CENTER STAGE, directed by Nicholas Hytner, written by Carol Heikkinen, produced by Lawrence Mark, with Amanda Schull, Zoë Saldana, Susan.

CENTER STAGE, directed by Nicholas Hytner, written by Carol Heikkinen, produced by Lawrence Mark, with Amanda Schull, Zoë Saldana, Susan May Pratt, Peter Gallagher and Ethan Stiefel. A Columbia Pictures production. 113 minutes. Opens Friday (May 12). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 107. Rating: NN

Center Stage is bound to be compared to Fame, since it’s about a group of students competing for a handful of openings in the prestigious American Ballet Academy.

All the expected characters are here: a bulimic perfectionist, a chick from the ‘hood with an attitude problem, an overbearing stage mother, a sexy jerk, an equally sexy nice guy waiting in the wings, and last but not least, a blond Sweet Valley High girl. She’s the type to pin the whole story on, even though she’s the least talented or interesting of the bunch.

But Center Stage is really a chaste Showgirls for teens. The lead character (Amanda Schull, who could pass for Elizabeth Berkeley’s little sister) is an ambitious blond with little talent. She arrives in this new world, gets told she doesn’t have what it takes to be a star, and sets out to prove everyone wrong.

Along the way, she sleeps with her superior (the aforementioned sexy jerk, played by American Ballet Theatre golden boy Ethan Stiefel), and he casts her as the lead in his show. By the end, everyone in the film comes to appreciate her enormous gifts, although the audience might be pulling out their binoculars to try to find them.

No misogyny

To be fair, Center Stage isn’t nearly as bad a movie as Showgirls. There are no lap dances, no T&A (ballerinas being the beanpoles they are, how could there be?) and no blatant examples of misogyny or bad taste. The worst lesson it might teach impressionable teens is that a night out drinking solves all life’s problems.

But neither is Center Stage the penetrating exposé it purports to be. Its most revealing moments come at the beginning, during a series of close-ups on the dancers’ damaged feet. This attention to detail bears the mark of the film’s director, Nicholas Hytner, who crafted The Madness Of King George and The Crucible. Unfortunately, the second-rate storylines here bear his mark, too he was also responsible for Jennifer Aniston’s The Object Of My Affection.

The true test of a movie about dance is the dancing. Because Center Stage stars real ballet dancers, there are enough impressive displays of technique to please fans of the form. Stiefel in particular is jaw-droppingly gifted. But the dance sequences are not especially stirring. Hytner has chosen to stage them sparsely and light them coldly, which makes the dancers look like featured artifacts in a museum. Their technique is showcased at the expense of their humanity.

Then again, that emphasis is basic to ballet, and it becomes the film’s biggest problem. Ballet dancers’ superhuman self-control and poise are great assets onstage, but they keep a film audience at a stultifying distance.

If Center Stage is any indication, getting up close to a remote art form like ballet is a doomed proposition.

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