Following a screening of Nicholas Hytner’s glossy picture about
the trials and tribulations of faculty and students at a
prestigious ballet academy, viewers suggested alternative
titles for the piece. One proposed “The Lead Shoes,” another
“U-2-4-6-8.” My contribution was “The Stomach-Turning Point.”
What’s notable about all this isn’t just that there wasn’t a
single favorable comment to be heard, but the level of contempt
directed at the picture, an unbelievably hokey and, in spite
of the terpsichore on display, resolutely lead-footed piece of
mawkish melodrama. “Center Stage” is an instant camp classic,
so shamelessly bad that it unintentionally invites hoots of
derision and peals of laughter.

It’s not clear why Hynter, who began his film career so
promisingly with the superb “The Madness of King George” and
then went on to the honorable failure of “The Crucible,” should
over the past few years have descended so speedily into puerile
material like “The Object of My Affection” and now this.
“Center Stage” wants, one supposes, to be a culturally
higher-toned variant of “Fame,” but what it comes across as
is “Melrose Place” in tights. The focus is on Jody (Amanda
Schull), a pretty but klutzy novice at New York’s American
Ballet Academy, who becomes a kind of pawn in a power play
between the company’s high-handed director Jonathan (Peter
Gallagher) and its ambitious, attractive star dancer Cooper
(Ethan Stiefel) while simultaneously finding herself torn
between the sexual energy of Cooper and the more timorous,
puppy-doggish adulation of sweet hoofer Charlie (Sascha
Radetsky). But that’s not all the soapoperatic mush the
screenplay has in store. We’re also forced to follow the
evolution of Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a superlative but
anorexic student pressured to succeed by her stage-mother mom
(Debra Monk) while being romanced by straight-arrow pre-med
student Jim (Eion Bailey), and that of Eva (Zoe Saldana), a
hard-edged, street-wise dancer who, in a final twist
reminiscent of “42nd Street,” finds magical success after a
series of apparent setbacks.

None of this is remotely credible, and it certainly doesn’t
help that, by reason of the dancing demands, most of the roles
had to be assigned to youngsters who can pull off the ballet
sequences well enough but evince acting talent about on a
level of what one might expect to encounter on afternoon
network television. They’re all attractive to look at, but
can’t enliven the empty, stock characters Carol Heikkinen’s
script has provided them with. Even an old pro like Peter
Gallagher is reduced to posing and preening as though he were
auditioning for “The Guiding Light” or “All My Children.” In
fact, the only performer who comes through with dignity intact
is Donna Murphy, who’s elegant and restrained as one of the
company’s instructors.

There are, of course, the dance sequences, but even they offer
little consolation. The choreography by Susan Stroman is,
understandably given her background, more Broadway than ballet,
and the single traditional extended sequence, staged by
Christopher Wheeldon, isn’t good enough to make one pine for
more. The failure of “Center Stage” to make even its
concluding, elaborate dance set-pieces very interesting is
characteristic of a picture that claims to be about classical
ballet but is really interested in more popular, Las Vegas
forms of choreography and movement (a fact accentuated
by the musical choices, which offer only a taste of established
masters like Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov while
giving us lots of jazzy or New Age-ish stuff and pop tunes
crooned over the action). So even the terpsichore seems
tonally phony in “Center Stage,” a picture in which nothing
else seems real, either.

As an accidental comedy, however, it works fairly well, and if
taken in that spirit it should provide some giggles.