There's spectacular dancing on display in "Center Stage." Unfortunately, all that artistry is surrounded by a hackish, paint-by-numbers storyline that makes the time between dance numbers seem endless.
Here's the plot, and when you recognize it from the dozens of similar plots you've encountered before -- think films from "Stage Door" to "Fame" -- feel free to skip ahead in the review: It's the opening of another semester at New York's American Ballet Company, and a bunch of young, talented, beautiful kids are determined to become famous. There's the big-headed, ultra-talented dancer who knows how good she is and acts like it. There's the dancer with a ton of attitude. There's the charming foreigner, the wallflower who expects to fail and the up-and-coming star intent on shaking up the old order.
There's a stage mom, a distinguished teacher too wedded to the old ways, and an instructor who acts tough but has a heart of gold.
And, most important, there's the sweet young thing who must be rooted for. Jody (Amanda Schull, a member of the San Francisco Ballet) is a good dancer who may not be great, but she's so darn plucky, she just has to succeed. She's beautiful, although she doesn't realize it. And she has a DREAM.
The best thing about plots like this is that, as soon as a character gets introduced, you know what's going to happen by the end of the film. Suffice to say, on that score, "Center Stage" doesn't disappoint.
It doesn't disappoint when it comes to the dancing, either, and that almost saves the film; for dance aficionados, it probably does. Works by master choreographers George Balanchine and Kenneth MacMillan are featured. Almost all of the cast was acting for the first time (it shows), and the performers were culled from leading dance companies. There's also an eclectic assortment of young talent on display, including the American Ballet Theatre's Ethan Steifel (as a maverick choreographer) and Russian gold-medal figure-skater Ilia Kulik (as the charming foreigner).
And director Nicholas Hytner is at his best putting the dance numbers on screen, giving us occasional close-ups, but never forgetting that dancers dance with their bodies, not their faces.
As a movie, "Center Stage" is one heck of a dance recital. But that's about it.
Starring Amanda Schull, Zoe Saldana and Peter Gallagher
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Released by Columbia
Rated PG-13 (language and some sensuality)
Running time 113 minutes
Sun score: * *