Center Stage at 20: The Underrated Dance Movie of the 2000s

The 2000s saw a fair share of dance movies from the likes of Bring It On (2000) and Save the Last Dance (2001) to Chicago (2002) and Step Up (2006). Then, there’s Center Stage, which was originally in the US back on May 12, 2000.

To jog your memory, this teen drama centres on a group of 12 talented teenagers (among them include Jody (Amanda Schull) and Eva (Zoe Saldana), as they join the American Ballet Academy to receive professional training in hope of becoming a successful ballet dancer. What follows next is a series of ups and downs as each of them coping with the pressure and high expectations in the dance classes.

Made at a moderate budget of US$29 million, Center Stage tanked at the US box office and couldn’t even recoup its production cost at the end of its theatrical run. The movie just couldn’t attract enough audiences and ended up making a paltry US$26.3 million in the worldwide box office, even though it has since become a cult classic post-cinema release.

When I first watched the movie back in 2000, I found it hard to believe it didn’t make a sizable amount of money in the box office. Perhaps it has to do with a lack of star power or promotional campaigns. Sure, most critics at the time weren’t friendly either as Center Stage mainly ended up with mixed responses. And yet, the movie works well for me. The teen-drama angle may have been nothing new but it does bring enough dramatic and emotional weight to its otherwise been-there, done-that kind of screenplay.

It also helps that director Nicholas Hytner — best known for his works in The Madness of King George (1994) and The Crucible (1996) — took a huge risk of enlisting mainly newcomers that made up the ensemble cast. This includes Amanda Schull, Zoe Saldana (yes, the Zoe Saldana before today’s generation remembered her the most as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers movies), Ethan Stiefel (who plays the dance choreographer Cooper) and Sascha Radetsky (playing one of the male dancers at the American Ballet Academy). Despite their inexperience in acting, they are actually better than I expected. Not the award-worthy types but good enough for newcomers like them.

The supporting cast, notably Peter Gallagher in his perfectly slimy role as American Ballet Academy director Jonathan Reeves and Donna Murphy appearing as a no-nonsense ballet teacher, round up the acting ensemble.

Then, there’s the pivotal part of the movie: the dance itself. And for that alone, Nicholas Hytner does a great job executing them. The choreography is fantastic (more on that later) and Hytner’s decision of casting not only newcomers but also have respective backgrounds in ballet dancing (Zoe Saldana happened to be one of them) help to bring out the authenticity of the dance sequences.

Having revisited Center Stage recently on Netflix during the time of self-quarantine due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I found the movie still had what it takes to make a great dance film. Although some of the teen-drama angles and the song choices — Mandy Moore’s “I Wanna Be with You”, in particular — tend to feel corny and dated by today’s standard, the movie remains as entertaining as ever.

And speaking of entertaining, watching the real-life ballet dancers-turned-actors showing off their dance moves no matter in the classroom or in front of the stage did give the movie a sufficient jolt of life and energy. The final dance sequence seals the deal and even after 20 years since its initial release, that particular moment still resonate me the most.

From witnessing Amanda Schull dressing in an eye-catching little red dress to the impressively-staged choreography perfectly captured on camera and energetic soundtrack (Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat”!), it was easily the most memorable setpiece of all. Without it, Center Stage is nothing more than your average and forgettable dance film. Even before the “Canned Heat”-accompanied dance sequence takes place in the end, the earlier four set-pieces that shaped the finale beginning with the ballet class-like session are just as epic and spectacular.

It’s a shame that the otherwise photogenic Amanda Schull didn’t make it big in Hollywood, even though she did appear in a few TV series such as One Tree Hill, Pretty Little Liars and 12 Monkeys. Not unlike her equally talented co-star, Zoe Saldana, who gradually became well-known in the late 2000s onwards after appearing as Neytiri in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) as well as the Star Trek franchise reboot and the aforementioned MCU movies.

For all the initial poor box-office performance, Center Stage did manage to spawn two sequels — 2008’s Center Stage: Turn It Up and 2016’s Center Stage: On Pointe — both inferior follow-ups that were no match with the superior first film. Do yourself a favour and stick to the original instead.