People who succeed at ballet are good at following directions; they take thousands of lessons over a decade and then get jobs before their peers head off to college. The great majority of them are white.
So the most encouraging thing about Center Stage is its multiracial cast. Of six students chosen from the entire graduating class of the top New York ballet school to join its affiliated company, two are black. One (Shakiem Evans) has his leg in a cast, and the other (Zoë Saldana), a girl from a rough part of Boston who’s always late for class, has just defied school policy to secretly replace a friend in the school’s prestigious workshop performance. In real life the former person would be deferred, at best, and the latter thrown out, but this is a fantasy in which everybody’s dreams come true. The shy kids develop confidence, the arrogant ones grow centered and wise, the girl with the “wrong body” (Amanda Schull) emerges as a star in a new fusion jazz troupe and gains the courage to blow off a bad guy.
Nicholas Hytner’s movie might be subtitled Beverly Hills 90210 Goes to Juilliard. The young performers, many of them trained dancers making their screen debuts, are operating in sitcom country (albeit on the Upper West Side), while the adults (Peter Gallagher convincingly impersonating NYCB director Peter Martins, Debra Monk as a manipulative stage mother, and Donna Murphy as a teacher who spots the professional inside the brat) give strong performances. Straddling their worlds is Ethan Stiefel, in real life a motorcycle-riding star at American Ballet Theatre, and here a jilted dancer who gets into pissing contests (they take the form of multiple pirouettes) with rivals; his ex-girlfriend, now attached to the company chief, is given genuine warmth by ABT principal Julie Kent.
There’s a lot of choreography (by Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon, as well as chunks of Ivanov, MacMillan, and Balanchine), but it remains in the background; the camera often cuts away from the stage to follow confrontations in the lobby. Center Stage pays lip service to the seriousness of craft but won’t let us watch the dancing.