A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 165 – Center Stage

Center Stage – August 12th, 2010

Tonight is the finale of the current season of So You Think You Can Dance, and we’ve done a few dance movies for it so far this season, so why not end on one? This is one of the rare movies in our collection that I’ve seen but Andy hadn’t. The funny thing is that one of his sisters is a ballerina. So I was looking forward to his views on this as someone who knows more about ballet than I do. I never took a single ballet lesson when I was young. The closest I got to dance class was a few meetings of junior cotillion where they showed us the box step and the hustle (yes, seriously). I never really wanted to do ballet. And yet I’ve seen this movie about 20 million times.

After I finished college and had to leave my sweet campus library job I was unemployed for about a month and a half. This sucked, but we had super deluxe cable that had three different HBOs, so at least I had plenty to watch. But the HBOs did this weird thing where they cycled movies through from one to the next. Therefore there was about two weeks when I could turn on the tv and this would be playing somewhere. I saw it a lot. Enough that a few of the songs used (the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover of Higher Ground in particular) are now inextricably linked to the dance numbers they’re used for here. I don’t know what drew me to this movie, but I love it.

It’s not super complicated, even though it tries hard to have a love triangle. The thing is, it’s hard to have a love triangle when almost nothing happens between two points of it and the third blinks in and out. It’s more about the aspirations of a group of young ballet students who want to be professional dancers. It’s got jealousy and drama and the requisite pitfalls, from body image issues and eating disorders to lack of talent to career crushing injury (anyone else watch SYTYCD and still worried about Alex, or just me?), even if the injury ends up not being so bad, so everyone can have a happy ending. Well, everyone we give a damn about, anyhow.

There are six students that get enough focus to be considered the lead ensemble. There’s Jody, the supposed star of the movie. She’s not as well trained as everyone else and her feet aren’t great and she isn’t turned out the way she should be, but she shines when she dances so none of that matters! In fact, that very sentiment is at the core of her character arc and is stated outright during the opening audition montage. There’s Eva (played by the always awesome Zoe Saldana – one of my first views of her and I loved her immediately as she’s probably the best actress and character in the movie), a scholarship student from Boston who’s got a chip on her shoulder and a somewhat defeatist attitude. She pisses off teachers and seems to hate everything, but she’s truly an excellent dancer under it all. There’s Maureen, the best dancer in school. She’s also got a chip on her shoulder and tosses off bitchy remarks, but is under enormous pressure from her mother and also hiding her bulimia. We don’t get to know the boys quite so well. There’s Erik, who’s black and gay and that’s about all we get to know about him. There’s Sergei, who’s Russian and straight but has a girlfriend in the San Francisco Ballet, and that’s all we know about him. And there’s Charlie, who’s white and straight and single and therefore a hot commodity in the school. The boys are all excellent dancers, especially Charlie, and that’s about it for them.

And then there’s Cooper Nielson, the principal dancer for the American Ballet Company (which the school everyone else is at feeds into) and a total cad. Excellent showman and dancer, yes, but with an ego the size of Jupiter. He is, in a word, entitled. Privileged, if you will. The world aligns for him, and when it doesn’t he throws a snit. When his girlfriend (and co-star) dumped him to marry the director of the company he took off for London for the season and has only just returned at the beginning of the movie, dead set on showing up the ABC. He makes one point in the triangle. Jody makes another. And Charlie’s the third. The problem with that plot is that there’s almost nothing between Jody and Charlie. He asks her out, but only after she’s gone out with Cooper and fixated on him and prior to that there’s a single scene of them dancing in a club, but it seems more like a performance than chemistry. And then Cooper ditches Jody after one night, then seems to fixate on her again after casting her in a piece he’s choreographing, then he and Charlie have a dance off. It’s a little forced. So much so that the entire piece Cooper choreographed is actually a summary of the triangle itself. This is a plot that felt the need to refresh your memory with Cliff’s Notes at the end. But I’ll get back to that.

What I like far more are Maureen’s and Eva’s arcs. They’re not surprising in any way, but they’re less forced than the Charlie/Jody/Cooper triangle, and where Jody’s plot is the fantasy where the girl who’s totally wrong is brilliant anyhow and gets the starring roll and the guy, Maureen and Eva both tackle some more realistic stuff. And eventually their arcs meet, which is nice. They start out hating each other, with Eva seeing right through Maureen’s bullshit Little Miss Perfect act and Maureen sneering at Eva’s Too Cool For This attitude. By the midway point, when casting for the big school showcase pieces is done and Eva realizes she’s blown her chances at getting a good part and managing to get into a professional company, you’ve seen her struggle with letting people tell her what to do and admitting this is important to her. Maureen, meanwhile, is realizing that it’s not important to her, and she’s gone and gotten herself a boyfriend who’s not a dancer, and is slacking off in rehearsals. She’s still puking though, and clearly ambivalent about the choices she’s made. Much as I like Susan May Pratt, I don’t always entirely believe her in this character, especially when her boyfriend calls her on the purging and she bitches him out for it. But it’s not enough to toss me out of the moment. In the end they both get what’s best for them, which is to be expected, but it’s a clearly bumpy road to get there.

Now, let’s talk about the dancing. As I’ve said, I’m no expert in ballet. I enjoy watching dance, but in no way can I spot flaws in technique or pinpoint nitpicky goofs in how the movie presents dancing. A goodly amount of it feels right to me, like the scene with everyone breaking in new toe shows and taping up their mangled ballerina feet. But the biggest glaring problems I have with the movie – aside from Jody’s magical ballerina aura or whatever – are in the final dance performance. Even ignoring the fact that the final performance is meant to be a reprisal of Jody’s arc, in case we missed it, which we could have, it has always struck me as massively unrealistic. The goofs section on the IMDB page for the movie claims that there’s nothing wrong with this performance and how it’s presented. I call no way. I’ve been a theater techie. I refuse to believe in the final performance. Because, see, it has a whole bunch of acts, with Jody playing a ballerina who’s sought after by both a company director and a hot shot rebel. And in each act she’s got a different hairdo and costume. I’ll buy the black leotard and bun turning into a blue dress and loose hair – that’s easy enough. But then it’s back to a new black leotard and a tight bun. And then suddenly she’s in red toe shoes, red leotard, super bold makeup and her hair’s all braided and done up with ribbons for the final scene. IMDB claims the movie implies an intermission. To that I say, there’d been at least two performances before this one. That is one long-ass showcase piece. And it goes from act to act. Assume there’s an intermission if you want. I don’t. I blame Jody’s magical ballerina powers. At least it’s fun to watch. Not necessarily ballet, but fun.

Which I think sums up the movie to me. It’s not a ballet. And in the end it’s not entirely about ballet dancers. When Cooper starts up a new company he hires a bunch of his friends from a Broadway-style group he hangs with. His company is clearly not going to be putting on a traditional Nutcracker performance come December. He’s put forth as directly opposed to the head of the school, Jonathan, and I think we’re supposed to see Jonathan as a stick in the mud. We’re supposed to think his way of doing things is outdated. But maybe not, because while it doesn’t suit Jody or Cooper, it does suit Charlie, Erik and Eva just fine. So the school and its faculty has to play a double roll of villains for one set of characters and heroes for the other set, which is messy. So it’s not just ballet. It’s dance. Painful, competitive, difficult, dangerous, heartbreaking as it is. It’s also fun. And as obvious as the plots are, and shallow as some of the characters are, and even with the Cliff’s Notes ending, it’s still fun to watch.

August 12, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,

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