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Ballet and Modern Dance

Who's dancing what, when and where around San Francisco Bay

About the Production

From the Columbia Pictures Production Notes

Several years ago, Columbia Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal became intent on making a movie about dance. Committed to developing the idea, Pascal signed screenwriter Carol Heikkinen to write an original screenplay that would focus on promising young dancers pursuing their dreams in the face of challenges and triumphs.

While Heikkinen's credits include "The Thing Called Love" and "Empire Records," two films about young people on the fringes of the pop music scene, her screenplay for "Center Stage" takes a look at a different group of young people-highly gifted students enrolled in the country's best ballet academy competing for a place in one of the world's top ballet companies.

Pascal passed the screenplay along to producer Laurence Mark, suggesting he become actively involved in the project. Mark responded enthusiastically to the idea.

True to the Ballet World

"The point was to make a movie that would be true to the ballet world and yet also have broad audience appeal. We wanted to make dancing extremely accessible," says Mark. "It was a solid idea, and Nicholas Hytner was the ideal person to bring this project to the screen-if only we could convince him to do it.

"Nick's films show extraordinary breadth-from the witty, intriguing 'The Madness of King George,' set in late l8th-century England; to 'The Crucible,' his trenchant rendering of the Arthur Miller play ostensibly about the Salem witch hunts in the 1600s; to 'The Object of My Affection,' a new-style and very contemporary romantic comedy set in New York City. With 'Center Stage,' Nick would again be in present-day New York but would now be asked to call upon his musical theatre background-he directed 'Miss Saigon' and 'Carousel '-in creating a movie in which dance and music figure so prominently."

Mark sent Hytner the screenplay, wondering if he'd be interested in directing it. Hytner was enthusiastic about the prospect of such a movie.

"I've worked with dancers throughout my career in the theatre," Hytner says, "and going to the ballet has been one of my greatest pleasures, particularly since collaborating, eight years ago, with the great British choreographer Kenneth MacMillanan. I hoped that the script I was sent might prove the basis for an authentic and truthful entertainment about the dance world, a movie which might communicate the joy and excitement I feel whenever I see top quality dance of any kind - classical or contemporary, jazz or ballet.

"I've always loved backstage movies," adds Hytner, "and here was an opportunity to set one in a world I know very well. I know how a repertory theatre works; I know how big not-for-profit companies are run; I've been to countless jazz and ballet classes; I've directed plays at Lincoln Center. It seemed like something I should do."

With everyone at the studio behind Hytner and Mark, the project began to move ahead.

Dedication of Dancers Emphasized

For Hytner, whose respect for dancers is boundless, it was important not only to feature the dancing itself in the movie, but to depict the true nature of the lives of young dance students-including their idealism and sense of commitment.

"These young people have a vocation which has no material reward and is grotesquely undervalued by society," says Hytner. "They are proudly aware that they are keeping alive a tradition which aspires to create perfect harmony out of the movement of the body."

In addition to the filmmakers being amazed at the sheer physical prowess and remarkable athleticism of these young people, "I'm constantly moved by their determination simply to be better at what they do," adds Hytner. "They develop a wonderfully demanding sense of what's beautiful and push themselves ferociously to achieve it, for its own sake," says Hytner.

Creating a film that depicts the true nature of dance was also a challenge to producer Laurence Mark.

"There are so many different kinds of dancing, from the kind that's very strict and goes by the rules to the kind you just feel with your heart. The movie explores both," says Mark. "Some people like living by rules; other people just want to go crazy. It all shows in how they dance. Dance expresses personality.

"The movie will hopefully be surprising in the many ways it features dance and in showing how completely joyful and sexy dance can be."

San Francisco Ballet Dancer Cast in Lead

After the director refused to consider several currently fashionable young actresses for the role of Jody because of their lack of dance skills, casting director Daniel Swee and his assistant Heather Baird traveled to cities all over the country to look for a dancer to play the part.

Center Stage production photo
Director Nicholas Hytner (right) discusses a scene with young stars Amanda Schull ("Jody") and Sascha Radetsky ("Charlie") during the filming of the Columbia Pictures presentation CENTER STAGE, which follows the hopes and dreams of young dance students as they try to make a name for themselves in the fiercely competitive world of professional dance.
Photos: Barry Wetcher

"We saw hundreds of young girls for Jody, and we got lucky in San Francisco," Mark says. "Amanda Schull had just been accepted as an apprentice with the San Francisco Ballet when she was spotted. The casting people were very excited and sent her to Los Angeles to meet Nick. He knew he'd found Jody very soon after he saw her. She did a screen test. It was breathtaking. There's something about her that rather glows on the screen."

"Last year was certainly a year of record for me," says Schull, who celebrated her 21st birthday during production. "Not long after being offered a place in the San Francisco Ballet - which had to be one of the most exciting moments of my life - I was offered a leading role in a movie. It was amazing. In my wildest dreams I never thought I'd be starring in a movie."

The role of Charlie remained unfilled for weeks, and casting came right down to the wire. One problem was that the character went through several incarnations in the script rewrites until he emerged as a romantic foil for Jody and a rival to Cooper. Young Sascha Radetsky-lithe, dark-haired and boyish, who dances in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre-landed the role a matter of days before shooting began.

Says Laurence Mark, "Sascha was the dark horse. He came in very late in the game and read for the role - eight hours later we told him he had the part. He couldn't believe it and called back to be sure that we were really offering him the job."

"Originally I read for the role of Sergei, the Russian boy. I don't think I was convincing," Radetsky, a Bay Area native, jokes. "Charlie was different. I knew I could do it. I'd done some acting as a kid. But I didn't want to get my hopes up. So when they told me I got the part, it took a little while to sink in."

Zoe Saldana was chosen to play Eva, the edgy student with a bad attitude from the streets of Boston. "To Eva, dancing is simple," Saldana says. "You feel it, you perform it. It doesn't have to be so technical and analytical. Eva's had a hard life, and dancing makes her happy."

Saldana studied ballet as well as jazz and modem dance, and she has amateur and professional acting credits to her name. She makes her screen acting debut in the film.

"I studied ballet for eight years but decided not to pursue it as a career," she says. "As soon as I was cast in the film, the first thing I did was go back to ballet class."

The talented young cast of the Columbia Pictures Presentation CENTER STAGE strikes a pose: From left to right) Zoë Saldana ("Eva"), Ilia Kulik ("Sergei"), Sascha Radetsky ("Charlie"), Amanda Schull ("Jody"), Ethan Stiefel ("Cooper"), Shakiem Evans ("Erik") and Susan May Pratt ("Maureen").

Shakiem Evans, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, plays Erik. Evans studied theater and acting at college and has danced with Alvin Alley.

Hytner was delighted with his young cast of professional dancers. "The dancers in the movie are the tiny handful that we met who were dazzling when they danced and comfortable with dialogue. We were lucky to have them."

Several major roles were cast with young, up-and-coming actors. Susan May Pratt, most recently of" 10 Things I Hate About You," plays Maureen, the. gifted ballet student who realizes she wants something in life other than dance. Eion Bailey ("Fight Club") plays Jim, the young medical student with whom Maureen falls in love.

"I danced a little when I was young, which helped in my preparation for the role," says Pratt. "A couple of months before rehearsals, I started training again and doing exercises to give me the proper musculature. The hardest thing was to change my posture-to learn how to stand really straight and hold my head properly."

The role of Sergei, the young Russian ballet student, was eventually cast with Ilia Kulik, the young Russian ice skater who took home a gold medal in the 1998 Olympics and who also makes his acting debut in the film.

The ensemble is rounded out with some of the most accomplished actors in films and theater today. Peter Gallagher ("American Beauty," "While You Were Sleeping") plays Jonathan Reeves, the artistic director of both the American Ballet Academy and American Ballet Company; two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy plays Juliette Simone, a teacher in the school; and Tony Award-winning stage, film and Emmy Award-winning television actress Debra Monk ("Bulworth," "In & Out," "NYPD Blue") plays Nancy, the dance company's publicist who is also involved in daughter Maureen's career.

Accomplished Choreographers Create New Dances for Center Stage

With casting completed, rehearsals began three weeks before filming. Hytner had, meanwhile, asked choreographers Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon to collaborate with him. Stroman is a two-time Tony Award winner for her work on Broadway, and Wheeldon is a 26-year-old New York City Ballet soloist who is also an accomplished maker of classical dances.

"It was always clear that we would want to see our story's American Ballet Company in performance," says Hytner, "so I chose excerpts from the kind of repertoire a company like ours might dance' Swan Lake,' MacMillan's 'Romeo and Juliet,' Balanchine's ballet 'Stars and Stripes.'

"But the climax of our story gave us a chance to create new dances specifically for the film. The annual workshop performance at which the future careers of advanced ballet students are decided is a feature of virtually every major ballet school in the world, and it's also often used as a platform for new choreographers. Chris Wheeldon himself has made dances for the School of American Ballet, which is attached to New York City Ballet.

"I asked Chris to make a plotless classical ballet to a shamelessly popular and romantic score. I know of no other young choreographer with Chris' blithe confidence in the classical tradition, and we chose Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto as his vehicle.

"With Susan, I planned what for me virtually became the film's raison d' etre: an extended narrative ballet which becomes the climax of the movie almost in the tradition of the great MGM musicals. Because, in our newly developed story, the ballet is choreographed by an iconoclastic young dancer who wants to fuse the classical with the contemporary, we were able to be eclectic in our choice of music for it."

Stroman and Wheeldon handpicked the dancers for the corps de ballet that would back the film's leading players from among Wheeldon's colleagues at New York City Ballet. These outstanding young dancers regularly dance the great masterpieces of the City Ballet repertoire by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, as well as more recent ballets by Wheeldon and Stroman themselves. For her jazz class sequence, danced to alternative rock music, Stroman chose dancers from many of her Broadway shows as well as several who were appearing in current Broadway hits such as "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Fosse."

Filmed on Location in New York City

After several scenes in ABA's offices, filmed at the Fordham University Lincoln Center campus, the unit moved for two days to the Kit Kat Klub on West 43rd street for the scenes inside a salsa club. Music was provided by salsa stars Elvis Crespo and Giselle, backed by a live band.

Salsa club"After the rigorous rehearsals for the strictly choreographed routines, this was more free-form," Stroman says. "The salsa everyone did was fantastic. Sascha and Amanda added some cool ballet moves, lifts and shoulder sits that somehow made their duet even sexier and underlined the attraction between Charlie and Jody-even if she doesn't quite know it yet."

The work completed at the salsa club, the unit moved back to Williamsburg in Brooklyn to film both the exterior of the salsa club and the interior of Cooper Nielson's loft. Filming then returned to Lincoln Center where the unit took up residence for two and a half weeks inside the New York State Theater to shoot two of the film's most important performance sequences.

Designed by the great American architect Philip Johnson to the specifications of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, founders of the renowned New York City Ballet, the State Theater is a house that was conceived mainly for the presentation of dance. It serves as the home of City Ballet (as well as the New York City Opera).

The American Ballet Company's annual fund-raising Gala Performance was the first segment to be filmed inside the house. The next performance segment Hytner filmed at the State Theater was the American Ballet Academy's annual Workshop Performance, a sequence that serves as the film's climax. Hytner worked on the sequence for an entire week, shooting the two original ballets alternately-Jonathan's romantic work, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to music from Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, in the morning; followed in the afternoon by Cooper's modern ballet (giving the dancers in each ballet a much-needed rest).

Cooper's ballet serves as the film's startling and original denouement, playing out in music and dance the central romantic triangle of the movie-two guys after the same young woman-with the very characters who have lived the story in the film.

"Nick and I talked it over and over," says Stroman. "The most important thing for him was to make sure that Cooper's ballet looked different from any other ballet. Because of that and the contemporary music it's danced to, it becomes more accessible to people who wouldn't normally go to the ballet."

"I put myself in Cooper's mind when I choreographed it," says Stroman. "Although he is so technically accomplished and comes from the classical ballet world, in his mind he wants to expand his art. So that's where I started from."

Hytner considers Cooper's ballet the film's most ambitious sequence. "The Cooper-Jody-Charlie triangle is developed, explored and resolved in a ballet which is simultaneously what Cooper originally intended it to be-about a different romantic triangle altogether: Cooper-Kathleen-Jonathan. The whole movie is rerun in ten minutes of pure dance. I believe strongly in dance as a narrative medium, and it was thrilling to work with Susan on creating the scenario for her ballet and then trying to find ways of making it work cinematically.

"I've been very fortunate to have been able to work with Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon," adds Hytner. "I am in awe of their talents."

Hytner's admiration isn't confined to his choreographers. "We have discovered in Amanda Schull a genuine talent - a natural actress and a dancer full of spirit.

"And Ethan continually astonishes me," Hytner says. "His grace, insight and athleticism are matched only by his ceaseless search for perfection."

For his part, Stiefel found himself having to get used to a new way of working.

"In ballet, you're doing a live performance, projecting to 3,000 people and working to a moment, a climax. On camera, the biggest adjustment for me was not to demonstrate things but just to let them happen."

Scenes at the New York State Theater were also filmed in the dressing rooms, in the wings during performances, in the audience and in the cramped hallways. Hytner shot two sequences on the theater's vast, impressive, elegant promenade, one of New York City's most glamorous spaces.

Leaving Lincoln Center after more than two weeks of work, the unit moved downtown to SoHo. Here, Broadway studiousing the facilities of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Hytner staged for his cameras the pulsating, sexually-charged, wildly athletic Broadway dance class Jody attends. Susan Stroman staged the class, which provides a contrast between the disciplined ballet world and the looser world of Broadway jazz dancing.

"Ethan was completely at home in this style," Stroman says. "He's an amazing dancer because he not only has phenomenal technique, beautiful carriage, great style and presence in classical ballet, but also because he can fit in on Broadway. He has great rhythm."

The Broadway dance studio scenes completed, the unit moved to a soundstage in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to film the succession of scenes that take place in what might be called the nerve center of any ballet institution-the main ballet studio. "Center Stage" '5 ballet studio was a huge set, about 68 feet by 48 feet, with mirrors on one side and windows on the other. Loosely based on New York City Ballet rehearsal rooms at Lincoln Center and the dance studios at Juilliard, it was a completely authentic recreation that was able, nonetheless, to be modified for the exigencies of filming.

"The ballet studio set was especially spare," production designer David Gropman says. "We were after clean lines. I used a monochromatic palette with white walls and gray interiors. Nick was absolutely clear: he didn't want any distractions. The focus at all times had to be on the dancers' bodies and their movement."

More than any other set in the film, the studio symbolizes the austere nature of the ballet students' world. It contains the two basic elements by which the dancers engage in the art form's rituals: the ballet barre attached to each wall that dancers use to center themselves as they execute the ABCs of their technique each and every day, and the wall of mirrors by which they can take a measure of their progress.

Ballet dancing is arduous, strenuous activity. Students are engaged in physical training that rivals the training Olympic athletes undergo. At the same time, they strive for physical perfection not for the prowess alone but as a way of achieving the means necessary to express the pure nature of their art. All the professional dancers in the film, from Stiefel, Schull and Radetsky to the corps de ballet members from City Ballet and ABT, took class every day before filming began - even if it meant getting up at 5:00 am.

TranslightOne especially imposing aspect of the film's main ballet studio set was the massive Translight that was placed on the soundstage outside the studio's wall of windows. The Translight is a giant photograph about 114 feet by 32 feet that shows a southwest perspective of New York City through the studio window and presents a view of the Hudson River and the mid-town skyline, including the Empire State Building.

"David Gropman built the studio set 12 feet off the ground-we all had to climb stairs or walk up a steep rampway to get on to it-so that. looking out the window at the Translight view we maintain the perspective of being above the school building," says Simpson. "This is crucial. One image that Nick mentioned to me when we first discussed the film was that he wanted to see the dancers soaring over New York City."

Indeed, New York City is an important element in "Center Stage."

"New York is definitely a character in the movie," Laurence Mark says. "It's important because the movie is about people from all over the country-all over the world-who want to be the best at what they do, and being the best at what they do requires that they come to New York, to the best ballet school in America. New York is the center of so many things, so it's no surprise to discover it's the capital of the dance world, too. From uptown at Lincoln Center to downtown in SoHo, we filmed on location so we could show off the city as it really is."

This desire for realism also pervaded costume designer Ruth Myers' work.

"For the dance sequences, we stressed simplicity and worked as if we were making a black and white film. Color was used economically for dramatic effect. It's significant that at the end of Cooper's ballet, Jody is in red. Before that, she's wearing a classical costume she could wear to dance 'Swan Lake'-a traditional white tutu that's been deconstructed for our purposes because, during the ballet, Cooper literally peels it off her."

Realism was the keystone as well for Myers' costumes for the ballet dancers off stage. "We shopped for the clothes at the same stores where the dancers themselves shop. I'm happy to say many of the costumes for. the film were indistinguishable from the clothing which the actors and dancers wore to work."

The rest of the material shot in the main studio included scenes that depicted boys and girls classes, rehearsals for the workshop ballets, and a confrontation between Eva and Juliette when Eva feels the instructor is being too hard on Jody.

Another important scene in the main studio had Jonathan Reeves, the head of the company and the school, greeting the new students at the beginning of the school year. Most of them, he knows, will not ultimately be accepted in the company and may not succeed in New York at all.

Peter Gallagher, who plays Jonathan, was fascinated with the character. "I've been to the ballet, but I didn't know much about it. Now I do. We had the greatest people in the profession working on the film and I was thrilled to be in their company. I can't remember when making a film has been more uplifting and exciting."

With scenes at the soundstage finished, the unit then returned to Lincoln Center to film various exteriors near the fountain on the Lincoln Center Plaza. After returning to the studio for various pickup shots, the unit filmed one last scene: Cooper giving Jody a ride on his motorbike over the Manhattan Bridge at sunset on their way to his loft. Production wrapped after nine weeks on September 14, 1999.

Tough, Tough World of Ballet

"Ballet's a tough, tough world. It's not for the fainthearted, " Hytner says. "It's unbelievably hard. Talk to Sascha Radetsky about the year he spent studying dance in Russia only a few years ago. In Moscow, instructors were still walking around class whopping bad legs with sticks. This is genuinely not an easy world. Ballet is a brutal career. It involves enormous sacrifice and physical pain.

"Our movie looks at a variety of characters in this world. They run the gamut from those who have the gift but don't have the desire or the spirit, to those who have the desire but aren't gifted enough to do what it is they think they want to do."

Adds Hytner: "Ballet is not a world remotely susceptible to the old 'can-do' spirit. I was determined that whatever else happened in the movie, Jody wouldn't end up in the American Ballet Company. Her victory is hard won, and I hope exhilarating, but she still has the wrong body type for the company."

"Dancers are so exposed," says Susan May Pratt. "Unlike acting, it's very clear who's good and who's not. They wear clothes that show off their bodies, and everyone can see right away what they can do and what they can't."

"There's competition in every walk of life," Laurence Mark points out. "Here, it has a particular edge because the students find that their best friends are often their fiercest competitors."

For the young dancers playing the leads, everything they were doing rang true.

"Jody's situation in the script pretty much parallels what I'm going through in life," says Amanda Schull. "It's one of the reasons I was cast, I think. I can relate to all of her problems and all the hard work she has to do."

Sascha Radetsky says, "Nick was always asking us when we did something if it felt right, if it was something we did normally. I can't think of one instance in all the weeks of filming that anything we did-in the dormitory, on stage or in the studio wasn't exactly as we do it at ABT, or in Russia, or anywhere they perform classical dance."

It is this sense of the rigor of the dance world that Hytner wants to convey to moviegoers.

"As far as Nick was concerned, no matter if it was ballet scenes, the Broadway dance scene or the salsa scene," says Stroman, "every scene had to be real.

"What was important for Nick was that the audience see all the sweat and strain and the love and guts it takes for dancers to get into the pink tutu - or whatever they're wearing - and put on this magical show," she says. "And although it is tough work, when you actually dance, there's absolutely nothing like it."

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Background photo © 1999 Michael W. Phelan

Michael W. Phelan:

May 13, 2000