'Center' dances to sprightly beat

Dance is a great subject for movies because it moves. Elegant motion, rhythmic music, colorful costumes - what more could a filmmaker need?

Another great subject is young people, partly because they're attractive and energetic, and partly because real-life youngsters go to movie theaters more often than older folks, and enjoy seeing folks like themselves on the screen. Center Stage, a lively new picture by Nicholas Hytner, capitalizes on dance and youthfulness by delving into the world of aspiring ballet dancers honing their talents in a demanding New York school.

The concept is a natural - "Fame" meets "The Red Shoes" - and the results are sprightly enough to make this musical-comedy-drama a guaranteed winner with viewers of all ages.

"Center Stage" takes place largely at Lincoln Center, where its mostly young characters (think of "A Chorus Line" in toe slippers) are enrolled in the American Ballet Academy, a training ground that's as competitive as it is prestigious. The school's sights are set on aesthetic beauty, but its methods have more to do with perspiration than inspiration.

We watch a small group of youngsters learn the rules of their new home, scope out the strengths and weaknesses of their teachers and fellow students, and plunge into their tasks with all the enthusiasm - and anxiety - of people who'll end the process as either newly discovered stars or instant has-beens.

Since its interests are geared as much toward dancing as acting, "Center Stage" has few big Hollywood names to put on the marquee. But its cast of gifted newcomers has more than enough magnetism to keep the story charming and engaging, despite the corny clichs that creep into Carol Heikkinen's screenplay from time to time.

Credit also goes to director Hytner, whose fascination with classical topics - he gave us "The Madness of King George" and "The Crucible," among others - makes him ideal for this project. The cinematography lives up to the aesthetic standards of the dance-driven plot, and George Fenton's music keeps the movie pulsing when the likes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff aren't filling the soundtrack.

Not since "The Turning Point" has a dance movie done so many cinematic pirouettes with such a graceful sense of audience-pleasing fun.

Who would have thought a boot camp for ballet dancers could be such a great place to spend an evening?

* Rated PG-13; contains a little sex and vulgar language.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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