In just about every way I can think of, ballet has been ill served by the movies. Even in the heyday of musicals--the '30s, '40s and '50s--ballet seldom made it onto the big screen. Overall, Hollywood producers tend to be either intimidated by it or not intimidated enough. Gene Kelly tried to bring ballet to the masses in such films as Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris and, especially, Invitation to the Dance, but this was an athleticized, razzle-dazzle kind of ballet that no serious balletomane could truly love. Movies set in the world of ballet--even 1948's The Red Shoes, which some consider the greatest dance film of all time--invariably feature high-strung artistes driven to the point of madness by their creative passion. The hidden message seemed to be that you'd have to be crazy to want to stand on your toes all day long. The Turning Point changed all that. Directed by Herbert Ross, this 1977 film took us behind the curtain, into the wings, into the studios--in short, into the lives of what appeared to be living, breathing dancers. The movie was supposed to be about the characters played by Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, a pair of ballerinas who'd pirouetted in opposite directions--Bancroft into lonely fame, MacLaine into a comfortable marriage--but it was really about the blood, sweat and tears of becoming a prima ballerina. Like a documentary, the movie was filled with tiny revelations, as when an aging Russian teacher shows a young ballerina how to flutter a fan. I'm convinced that most of us don't go to ballet movies for the emotional hysterics; we go for the Degas-like look at, say, a newly hatched swan strapping on her toe shoes. The Turning Point might have been a turning point for ballet movies; instead, they were whisked off the stage without a curtain call...until now. Nicholas Hytner's Center Stage finally revives this beleaguered subgenre, and although it's a lot closer to Fame and A Chorus Line than to The Turning Point, that won't matter much to either of the film's target audiences: ballet fans who, at this point, are willing to settle for anything and teenage girls who, the producers hope, are more than willing to settle for Ethan Stiefel. The ballet superstar, who grew up in Portage and took his first dance lessons with JoJean Retrum right here in Madison, has what I'd call the Yuri role--the leaping lord of the dance who deflowers the ingenue and then moves on to the next flower. Baryshnikov originated the role in The Turning Point, and once again Stiefel follows in Mischa's footsteps. Center Stage goes for a broad, almost sociological approach, focusing on several dancers who have been admitted to the so-called American Ballet Academy at New York's Lincoln Center. And if you start to get the impression that Hytner and scriptwriter Carol Heikkinen have rounded up the usual suspects--the perky blonde who has bad technique but major star power, the beautiful black girl who has great technique but a bad attitude, the brittle anorexic who's only in it because her stage mom forced her to be--at least the filmmakers have gotten credible performances out of actresses who also seem to know their way around a dance floor. Even Stiefel, who's modeled his performance on Baryshnikov's matter-of-fact line readings (I'd swear he's speaking with a slight Russian accent), comes off as more than a pair of legs. Still, what a pair of legs! Like most ballet movies, Center Stage has just enough dance footage to leave us screaming for more--excerpts from MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet and Balanchine's Stars and Stripes, plus various other forms of hoofing. The movie culminates with a student performance that pits old-school dance against new-school dance via a pair of ballets choreographed by the academy's director (Peter Gallagher looking awfully schlumpy for a supposed former dancer) and Stiefel's hip-hop-happenin' Cooper Nielson. Nielson's contribution is one of those ballet/Broadway fusions that are supposed to please everybody but often wind up pleasing nobody. If it's meant to represent the future of ballet, and I think it is, then I should point out that it features the female dancer who has rotten technique. (So much for turn-out.)
And it features Stiefel roaring around the stage on a motorcycle. The movie has a good time playing off Stiefel's real life--the Harley Davidsons, the defections to Zurich (in the movie, it's London), the sense of a legend in the making. However briefly, Hytner has captured Stiefel's amazing dancing on film, which justifies the price of admission all by itself. I only wish Center Stage had left some of the clichés behind and given us a good, hard look at what it's like to study ballet now, when the world that invented this demanding form of dance has disappeared. I loved the moment when a ballerina who's on a cigarette break snubs the butt out with her immaculately pointed toe. There's more poetry-in-motion in that single gesture than I've seen in hundreds of action movies. If Hollywood could bottle it, they'd make millions.