Ok, so hear me out…
I know analyzing, fan theory-ing and pontificating on details of movies/theater/TV/books/etc. has reached an all-time high, and possible saturation point. But I do think some of that pontificating can lead to wider discussions about important ideas that bleed off the screen to powerfully show up in real life. I think the end of CENTER STAGE is one of them. The awesome twist was unusual for what is basically a feel-good, fun dance film (though it does skim the surface of darker, deeper issues in the dance world,) and threw everyone for a loop in a great way. But it did leave a big unanswered question – one I think delving into might help us with when looking at artistic gatekeeping with a more critical, realistic eye.
Plus, honestly, who in the theater world doesn’t love CENTER STAGE and wouldn’t have fun overanalyzing it?
So, here we go. Keep in mind, there are major spoilers ahead for CENTER STAGE as well as THE TURNING POINT and THE RED SHOES.
So, to recap, the story of CENTER STAGE centers around Jody Sawyer – a bright, lovely, talented (albeit without the “ideal body type” (according to other characters in the film,)) young dancer who makes it into the senior class of ABA (the fictional American Ballet Academy, meant to be a stand-in for SAB – the real-life School of American Ballet.) ABA is the feeder school for the, also fictional, ABC (American Ballet Company, meant to be a stand-in for the real-life New York City Ballet (possibly with some American Ballet Theater thrown in for good measure.) She starts her year alongside some notable other students:
EVA – The only principal woman of color in the school, Eva comes from a challenging background (one that never gets delved into, but apparently there was a subplot that was cut involving her brother being killed (and possibly being a drug dealer in her home town? The details are a bit murky as none of this made it into the final film…)) Suffice it to say that Eva comes from the “wrong side of the tracks” but is naturally very good at ballet. She is street smart, tough, and has a massive chip on her shoulder. Though she does have an “ideal body type,” (again, according to the film,) she is disrespectful to authority figures, and it causes her a lot of problems. Here are two exchanges from the film that pretty much summarizes where Eva starts:
Upon learning that she got into ABA:
Eva: I don’t know, I’m thinking maybe I’m not going to go.
Friend: So what are you going to do?
Eva: There’s that new Hooters opening up, I could work there!
A little later in the film after all the new students have had their first class.
Maureen: Eva’s actually good – amazing extension. But her attitude stinks. Jonathan hates her already, thank God!
MAUREEN – Maureen is the girl who’s been at ABA since she was a child. She’s the star of the school and she knows it. The Queen Bee of the ballet world. There a lot more going on with her under the surface, but for our purposes, that’s the main thing we need to know.
CHARLIE – A super talented new male student.
ERIC – Another super talented male student (also the only principal man of color in the film.)
ANNA – A long-time student, she’s come up through the school with Maureen and is also very talented.
EMILY – Another long-time student who’s come up through the school with Maureen and Anna. Talented, but has been gaining weight (this is a major plot point.)
JONATHAN is the artistic director of the company and the head of the school. Elitist and kind of a jerk.
Ok. So, the driving force behind every major character for the whole film is:
Who’s going to be asked to join the company at the end of the year?
On the first day of class, Jonathan makes a rather depressing speech in which he says:
“At best I can take three boys and three girls.”
Ok. Here we go. Now which male dancers get in honestly isn’t that big of a deal. We pretty much know from the word go and, with the exception of a bit of drama about ¾ of the way through the film, no big surprises there. (Even Sergei gets what he wants – which is to be at San Francisco Ballet with his girlfriend. Missing his girlfriend is his #1 character trait, other than being Eastern European.)
So, the drama is down to the girls.
Early in the film Maureen’s mother (think the mom from BLACK SWAN but turned down like 60 notches,) asks Maureen:
Mom: So you still think it’ll be you, Anna, and Emily?
Maureen: Yeah. Although, have you seen Emily?
They turn and look at Emily and are shocked that she’s gained weight.
But, basically, that’s where we start. The three favorites to get in the company are, as they have been for years, Maureen, Anna, and Emily (if she can get her weight down.) The two new competitors are dismissed as not being a threat – Eva because “her attitude stinks,” and Jody because: “She’s hopeless, she’ll never make it.”
Throughout the movie, these assumptions are questioned and challenged, most notably in our protagonist, Jody.
From the first moment in the film, we know that Jody has a “spark.” The opening line of the film, spoken by one of the school’s auditioners is:
“Not enough turn out. Bad feet. But look at her!”
Jody has physical limitations as a dancer. But she has something special. There’s a joy that radiates through her when she dances. She’s unique.
This comes up again, and again in the film. Midway through the year, Jonathan calls her into his office for a conference where he basically says that she needs to look at the realities of her becoming a professional dancer, and encourages her to apply to college while there’s still time. Jody is hurt and horrified. This is part of their exchange:
Jonathan: You’re not very turned out, so that needs work. And you don’t have great feet. And while you’re very pretty, you don’t have the ideal body type.
Jody: Margot Fonteyn didn’t have great feet.
Jonathan: When Margot Fonteyn was on stage you couldn’t tear your eyes away from her. That can’t be taught.
And that, basically, is the central theme of the movie – can uniqueness and passion win out against the “system?”
And that’s why the answer to “Does Jody get into the company?” becomes so important.
Especially because this is an issue that is VERY present in the real world of the performing arts – probably most measurable in the dance world.
The “ideal body type” is no joke, and it’s not really something that’s subjective – at least in classical ballet. Arguably the greatest ballet school in the world is the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Russia – the feeder school for the Mariinsky Ballet. The vast majority of the greatest ballet dancers who have ever lived have come from that school. There’s a wonderful documentary that was made about them in the 1970s called “Children of Theatre Street” where they talk about their admission process. Part of the process involves potential students visiting the school’s medical center where:
“The children’s bodies are judged against a mathematical index describing the ideal dancer. A computerized list of measurements predicts the proportion of the leg to the torso when the child is fully grown. Talent is considered worth measuring only when it occurs in the right body. And the index doesn’t measure the child’s desire to dance…”
They are not the only school that has such a requirement, but they are probably the most strict about it.
Jody Sawyer would never have gotten into the Vaganova Academy. Neither would Margot Fonteyn for that matter.
The way things pan out in CENTER STAGE is interesting when all this is taken into account.
Jody, wanting to “enjoy dancing again” sneaks away from ABA and takes a jazz class at the equivalent of Broadway Dance Center. It just so happens that Cooper, a star with ABC who, after a leave of absence, has recently returned and is making the transition to choreographer, is also in the class. He’s taken with Jody (personally and professionally,) and decides to cast her as the lead in the piece he’s choreographing for the student workshop (the workshop will, supposedly, be a big factor in who gets into the company…) This is good news for Jody as she doesn’t get cast in ANYTHING ELSE in the workshop…not even as a corps member standing in the back.
Eva isn’t as lucky. She does get cast as a corps member, but nothing else. As she says;
“No one will see me and I won’t get a job.”
Maureen gets the lead in Jonathan’s ballet.
Anna gets the lead in another big ballet.
Emily, by this point, has left the school because she’s getting so much harassment about her weight (and it’s basically implied that if she didn’t choose to leave she would have been kicked out.) That means that, if Maureen and Anna both get in the company there will still be one place left…
There’s a lot of talk about “I’m not dancing for them anymore, I’m dancing for me,” “Just feel it,” “Who cares what they think?” “Tomorrow’s just one more day I get to dance,” etc.
But let’s break down the reality.
Though Cooper does legitimately love Jody as a dancer (as he says; “I recognized your dancing before I recognized you”) by this point they’re also sleeping together. Jody is, at most, eighteen years old (God, let’s hope she’s eighteen!) And Cooper is an ADULT. His age is never specifically stated, but he was a principal with the company for a while even before he took a hiatus and then came back. Assuming he got into the company around seventeen/eighteen, and even assuming a meteoric rise through the ranks, he’s at least got to be in his mid to late ’20s. And the fact that he’s transitioning to being a choreographer, to me implies that he’s at least pushing thirty (most classical dancers (with some exceptions) stop dancing professionally by age forty at the most.) He’s also in a position of power over her, and at this point is her only chance to make Jonathan change his mind about her. Cooper is also the resident playboy and, as one dancer describes him; “screws every girl in tights.” This is in no way shapes or forms a healthy relationship. Yet keeping him happy is Jody’s only chance to get into ABC.
Also, that “chance” is not in doing classical ballet, but doing contemporary ballet. She’s freaking amazing at it, but it’s not why she went to ABA. She says later in the film “All my life I wanted to be a member of the American Ballet Company.” She says about Cooper’s choreography, “The piece is so not ABC.” Contemporary ballet, contemporary dance, and modern dance have traditionally been places where unique, talented dancers who don’t necessarily have the “ideal body type” thrive.
By this point in the story, Eva has also mellowed a bit. She’s started to find her place within this rigidly structured world and figured out how to work within the system (while still maintaining some great wisecracks on the side) without letting it break her spirit. But I would like to point out that this only happens after Juliet (Eva’s main teacher) takes her under her wing which includes giving her the sadly true, but horribly problematic advice that boils down to “Jonathan’s awful and a total jerk. But every choreographer and artistic director is like that so if you want a career you’d better learn how not to piss them off.”
Maureen, in the meantime, is confronting the fact that she doesn’t actually want to be a ballet dancer. She naturally has the facility but was basically pushed into it by her mom who always felt like she missed her chance to be a dancer and didn’t want that to happen with her daughter. Maureen is also finally admitting to having a long-time eating disorder and, in a big twist, decides to quit ballet and, without telling anyone, gives her lead role in Jonathan’s ballet to Eva. Jonathan is shocked to see Eva onstage, but…she looks great and people are commenting about how good she is – and how good she makes Jonathan’s choreography look.
In the meantime, Anna kills in her ballet, so looks like she’s a shoo-in for one of the spots (side note, I have a theory, based on this film, that every movie/show/etc. has an “Anna.” Anna starts CENTER STAGE as one of the top girls in the school. She keeps being amazing. She skips all the drama and then gets into the company at the end. Look closely at any story – there’s always some background character that starts out great, bypasses all the bad stuff, and ends up great…)