The mysterious rituals of ballet dancers enshrined in Center Stage – the personalized mauling of toe shoes, the stretching of impossibly elongated muscles, the coltish wobbles of exhausted egos, the bleeding feet, the dumb smoking – haven’t been so thoroughly fetishized since… well, since the last time there was a movie about dance. ”Fame,” ”The Turning Point,” Frederick Wiseman’s 1995 documentary ”Ballet,” each in its fashion idolizes a necessarily unbalanced way of life.
I could watch Michael Powell’s ”The Red Shoes” as unceasingly as Moira Shearer danced in them, but what director Nicholas Hytner (”The Crucible”) and screenwriter Carol Heikkinen find fascinating about the kids seeking fame in ”Center Stage” is the same old stuff, not an arabesque more: shredded slippers, shredded nerves, shredded bodies, and, to the lucky few, an armload of roses.
Gay boy and straight boy, black street girl with an attitude and white bulimic girl with a demented stage mother – there’s no cliché left untwirled among the students attending the fictional American Ballet Company, strongly reminiscent of the New York City Ballet and partially shot at Lincoln Center. Each makes a breakthrough or has a breakdown by the time the curtain falls.
Working primarily with real dancers who can somewhat act, including American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel as a Baryshnikov-like rebel, and the San Francisco Ballet’s Amanda Schull as an all-purpose ingenue, Hytner moves his troupe purposefully. But he does nothing to dispel the strangely disdainful subtext – that while ballet is ethereal, those wanting to get ”real” take classes in Broadway movement or shake and slither in red-lit salsa clubs. This surely gives a mixed message to the young balletomanes (and their mothers) who are ”Center Stage”’s central audience.
Circulating among the too-too tutu kids, though, are two pros who make their own fun. As a Balanchine-like martinet, Peter Gallagher is a hoot, whispering to his minions about good and bad feet. And as the retired prima ballerina now teaching the advanced technique class, the commanding Donna Murphy (who recently tore up the Manhattan floorboards in a concert revival of ”Wonderful Town”) is as dauntingly elegant as a prima ballerina should be, and is, in every ballet movie.