According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
Warning: This story contains spoilers for 2000’s Center Stage.
Nearly 20 years after it first hit theaters, Center Stage has attained certified cult classic status. The mere mention of it sends my brain into a tailspin of nostalgic joy as I replay my favorite parts: the fiery dance finale; the imperious way Susan May Pratt spits out the line: “I’m the best goddamn ballerina in the American Ballet Academy — who the hell are you?”; Mandy Moore’s “I Wanna Be With You” as its unofficial theme song; Zoe Saldana’s rebellious smile as she smacks her gum mid-plié and then swallows it… perfection.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Center Stage pays tribute to the ballet world’s misfits and troublemakers. Our entry point into this ultra-disciplined profession is Indiana born-and-bred Jody Sawyer (played by real-life ballerina Amanda Schull) who — despite her “bad feet” — gains acceptance to New York City’s prestigious, if fictional American Ballet Academy. Her ultimate goal? Grabbing the spotlight at the ABA’s annual workshop, after which only six candidates will be asked to join the ranks of the American Ballet Company, though dozens of other companies from all over the country will also be scouting for new prospects.
Like any good ensemble film — and ballet company for that matter — Center Stage is defined by its cast of supporting players. There’s Jody’s roommate, Eva (Saldana, in her feature film debut), whose flippant attitude can’t hide how much she really cares about her craft; mean girl Maureen (Pratt), the aforementioned best goddamn dancer in the Academy; task-master Jonathan Reeves (a pre-The O.C. Peter Gallagher), head of the American Ballet Company; former lead dancer-turned-teacher Juliette (Donna Murphy); hot potential love interest Charlie (real-life ballet star Sascha Radetsky); and finally, bad boy Cooper Nielson (Ethan Stiefel, who was a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater from 1997 to 2012, and is now a celebrated choreographer… just like Cooper).
Rife with drama, sexual tension, and moves only professional dancers can bring (which more than makes up for their acting inexperience), the movie holds a place of honor on the pedestal of early-aughts teenage girl cannon. Naturally, it received bad reviews.
At the Austin Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten expressed contempt for its intended audience: “It’s not necessary to be a young girl in love with her new tutu in order to like Center Stage, but it certainly wouldn't hurt.” The BBC’s Michael Thomson dismissed this “fat cliché of a film, which is mediocre only in its better moments.” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote that the script “plays like Dawson's Creek in toeshoes,” adding that “mini-dramas involving bulimia, homosexuality, adultery, and pushy parents distract from the ballet.” At Variety, Emmanuel Levy called it “an uneven, mildly entertaining divertissement that relies on audience tolerance for a tale that recycles rather than reinvents familiar ideas.” Desson Howe at the Washington Post wrote that “Center Stage is all dancing and hugging and no good.”
There were some notable exceptions. Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars, drawing attention to the small details (like the dancers smoking) that make the movie feel authentic. “Film is a wonderful way to look at dance, because it gets you closer and varies the point of view, but since the death of the Hollywood musical there hasn't been enough of it,” he wrote. “Center Stage has moments of joy and moments of insight, and is about both human nature and the inhuman demands of ballet.”
At the Chicago Tribune, Monica Eng emphasized the importance of the film’s fairy-tale ending. “A little too neat and happy to be realistic, it does leave you with the feeling of young girls taking charge of their lives. In Hollywood films, that's as exotic a dance as you are going to see.”
Others rightly pointed out that the film grossly overlooks the LGBTQ+ community’s contributions to dance culture. As Rita Kempley wrote in her own (negative — contempt for this film crossed gender lines) Washington Post review: “This is apparently one of the few ballet companies populated exclusively by heterosexuals, with the exception of Erik (Shakiem Evans), who seems to be the troupe's token gay man.”
But what stands out from these reviews — good and bad — is a tacit agreement that Center Stage was an inconsequential bit of fluff, fun for a while but soon to be forgotten. Asked about her feature debut in 2014, Saldana revealed that women she meets are often embarrassed to be caught liking it. “Everyone's afraid to tell me that because they're afraid they'll seem weird, but oh my gosh, I love hearing that,” she told Elle. “It's still one of my favorite movies, too.” Mention Center Stage to any millennial woman, and chances are she’ll have a similarly enthusiastic reaction.
Ironically, the secret to the film’s longevity has everything to do with critics’ main objection to it. There is no question Center Stage prioritizes dance over plot. For the most part — Saldana being the notable exception — the acting is wooden and cheesy. But the dancing? Tell me your eyes don’t burn when Jody — in spicy red pointe shoes following an inexplicable mid-number quick change — leads a chorus line of fouettes to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat.” Five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman’s choreography is exhilarating to watch — the illicit jazz class set to “Higher Ground”! — with the added thrill of knowing you’re witnessing the real deal. These are professional dancers (Saldana and Pratt aside, there are no stunt doubles among the lead cast) doing things with their bodies you wouldn’t think possible. You don’t have to be on the lookout for a misstep, or a bad cut. You can just sink in, and enjoy.
Center Stage would eventually inspire two sequels — 2008’s Center Stage: Turn It Up and 2016’s Center Stage: On Pointe — but its most uproarious encore was felt in the real world.
Four years after the film’s premiere, Stroman became the first woman ever to direct and choreograph a full-length production for the New York City Ballet.
But there’s more to enjoy than just dancing. The script, written by Carol Heikkenen (who also wrote 1995’s Empire Records, another cult favorite) contains its share of clunkers, but it gives its women agency and courage, handling sensitive topics like bulimia with care and empathy.
Each of the three female leads gets to draw her own path. Jody begins the film with the firm belief that the only way forward for her is as a dancer with ABC. But months of training prove that the thrill of dancing for herself means more to her than membership in a prestigious company. When she decides to accept Cooper’s offer to be a principal dancer in his edgy new company — with the condition that they end their toxic sexual relationship — she’s setting her own boundaries, separating her love life from her professional goals, and taking control of her own trajectory. But it’s also a signal to young women that their dreams don’t have to remain stagnant. We can evolve, and most importantly, choose ourselves.
Similarly, Maureen, whose aggressive stage mom has only ever let her pursue one career path, ends her arc with the realization that she’s deeply unhappy. We’ve witnessed her pain as she battles an eating disorder, exacerbated by a culture that drills the need for control over one’s body, and shames those who fall outside of its narrow definitions of beauty. And though she’s not magically cured of her troubles, you do get the sense she’s making her own decisions and working to get better. She also has a strong support system: her friends, her mother, and her hot doctor boyfriend (Eion Bailey), who’s genuinely committed to her well-being. (Maureen has the most healthy and mature relationship in this movie by a longshot.)
But the most powerful story of all belongs to Eva. Initially excluded from the workshop on account of her bad attitude (delivered with so much raw charisma by Saldana that you wonder how Jonathan can’t see a star in the making), she finally gets her moment in the spotlight in Center Stage’s most emotional scene. With Maureen retiring from dance, Eva takes her place as the lead of the workshop production of Jonathan's ballet, giving a gorgeous, flawless performance that earns her a place in the ABC. Though the words are never explicitly spoken, the significance of seeing a woman of color take, ahem, center stage in such a historically white medium is crystal clear.
Like Jody and Maureen, Eva doesn’t patiently wait for her destiny to be handed to her — she pirouettes into her future, fearless. You don’t need a tutu or leotards to relate to that.
Correction: This story erroneously referred to the end workshop production as Swan Lake. It's actually Jonathan's ballet.