I once had the immense pleasure of seeing the great musical group the Afro-Cuban All Stars perform in Melbourne. One of the terrific things about this high-energy show was being able to see, over the course of an hour and a half, a staid, stiff concert hall transform itself into a riotous dance hall.
There was a moment where it seemed like everyone, everywhere – on the stage, in the stalls, in the aisles – was dancing, urged on by the band's cool leader, Juan De Marcos. Suddenly, the Melbourne Concert Hall space was no longer set up like a traditional show-biz spectacular, with something fantastic in the limelight, and people in the dark arranged around it, attentively watching and listening.
When everybody started dancing, the house lights actually went up, the show was absolutely everywhere at once. It was a levelling, democratic moment: it didn't matter whether you were one of those show-off types who'd just been to Cuban dance classes, or someone who couldn't clap to a beat to save themselves – you didn't have to be star to be a part of this show.
This experience has merged in my mind with Center Stage. This is a movie about dancing – mainly ballet dancing – and it's the first of many movies about dancing, dancing of all sorts, that hit screens (or shelves of video shops) in the dawn of the 21st century.
Watching a dance movie is a strange, paradoxical thing. As you take in all this exuberant, flowing movement, you are completely reduced to the position of mere spectator – glued to your seat in the dark. You can't join in physically, only in your imagination.
At the same time, I believe that the joy, the kick of the greatest dance films – whether The Red Shoes (1948), or the best Old Hollywood musicals, or more modern efforts like Carlos Saura's Flamenco (1995) and Tango (1998) – is that they show dance overflowing the boundaries of a stage, dance infecting all the rhythms and gestures and interactive situations of daily life.
Center Stage carries this kind of infectious, overflowing thrill. It's about dance training, and it follows the fortunes and woes of a bunch of students at a top-line New York ballet school. There are real dancers in it, like Ethan Stiefel and Amanda Schull, and director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible ) knows the best way to film their precise, energetic movements – he gives us a brilliant, rigorous exploration of the possibilities of widescreen composition.
Many reviews of this movie have denigrated it as, basically, a bunch of backstage-musical clichés borrowed willy-nilly from Fame (1980), A Chorus Line (1985), 42nd Street (1933) and just about any dance movie you can name.
This charge is true enough but it's meaningless. Clichés in a pop movie can be sublime if they are handled with verve and knowingness, and that's the case here.
Center Stage shows us girls with dieting anxieties and eating disorders; it includes a tyrannical dance director in an explosive love triangle with the young hot-shot up-and-coming choreographer; it ends in a big public show; it even has the obligatory scene where the students hit the town and get down and dirty in a salsa club.
The best thing about Center Stage is that, in a sense, the dancing never stops. It bleeds over into everything: loving, walking, riding a motorbike, even smoking a cigarette.
Hytner shoots and frames the film in such a way that many things are always going on at once, a profusion of actions and rhythms in the foreground and background alike. The film can sweep you up, transport you into this fine fantasy-land of total dance.
It's just a pity that Juan De Marcos can't be beside you in the picture theatre, to tell you that it's alright if you want to get up and dance, too.
© Adrian Martin September 2000