I think Center Stage remains beloved today because it was one of the first dance movies to give an honest depiction of the life of a professional dancer in New York City. Dance is the star of the movie. Much of the choreography is shot head to toe, so the camera takes the time to honor the body of the dancer. There are quick edits for energy, but dance is not sacrificed. As for the story, the characters are very real, authentic representations who reflect the heart and soul of a dancer. And it’s a great homage to New York City, featuring plenty of quintessential city shots where, to this day, you could visit and immediately spot a dancer. For young people desperate to become dancers, this movie has it all.
The director Nicolas Hytner truly appreciates dance, especially ballet. Nick made sure dance was the main focus, casting professional dancers in many of the lead roles – Amanda Schull (Jody Sawyer) danced with San Francisco Ballet, Ethan Stiefel (Cooper Nielson) was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater and Sascha Radetsky (Charlie) also danced for the company. The film not only celebrates dancers, but explores the difficulties in the world of professional dance – the competition, the relationships, the traditions, the physical and emotional stress a dancer lives with every day.
Nick wanted me to choreograph several moments in the film, but he also wanted me to play the role of Cooper Nielson. Obviously he didn’t mean “act” the role of Cooper Nielson, but rather he wanted me to be Cooper’s brain. He asked me to approach the work as if I were a rebellious choreographer and then do what he would do – if Cooper had the opportunity to create a new ballet, what would that look like?
Cooper is a flirtatious, talented scoundrel – a perfect role for the extraordinarily versatile principal dancer Ethan Stiefel. Cooper is at odds with the head of the fictitious ballet company American Ballet Academy, Jonathan Reeves – played by the wonderful Peter Gallagher. There is tension between Jonathan and Cooper. Cooper is Jonathan’s best dancer, however he no longer wants to dance – he wants to be a choreographer. Also Cooper’s ex-girlfriend, Kathleen, recently left him to take up with Jonathan.
Nick asked me to create a ballet choreographed by Cooper based on the relationships of Cooper, Jonathan, and Kathleen. I start Cooper’s Ballet with the corps of ballerinas dressed in white with Jody as the Lead Dancer among them. Charlie has been cast in the role of the Ballet Master, who has his eye on Jody’s character. Charlie’s Ballet Master counts in the ballerinas and they begin dancing to a selection from “The Nutcracker”. Suddenly we hear the roar of a motorcycle and the vamp to the song “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson. Cooper appears, driving his motorcycle right onto the stage. The inspiration for this idea actually came from people telling me Ethan drove a motorcycle in real life. So I asked him if he would like to make his entrance on a motorcycle. His response was “Sweet.”
“The Way You Make Me Feel” was the perfect tune to represent a choreographer bucking against the world of traditional classical ballet. I felt this music would make his nemesis Jonathan crazy. Cooper dismounts the motorcycle with a cabriole beat and proceeds to pull Jody out of the line of ballerinas. The intro into the vocal sounds like the orchestration is on a whammy bar. It lasts for twelve counts and it sounds like a whirlwind, like something spinning – just like in the old MGM days when someone ripped off a dance skirt or spun out of one. I thought it would be a fantastic moment if Cooper grabbed Jody’s tutu, holding it while she chaines out of it to reveal the newly bright colorful costume underneath. The costumer Ruth Myers loved the challenge – she was brilliant at making it work. She created a series of small snaps and Velcro around the tutu’s waist which would unsnap as Jody did her turns. On reset, snapping the trick costume back together took a very long time – but it was worth it. The action matched the music beautifully.
Cooper and Jody dance while the ballerinas continue their traditional routine in the background. Cooper does a set of solo turns – Ethan is spectacular – and even some breakdancing, then he picks up Jody, sets her on his motorcycle, and off they ride while Charlie’s Ballet Master looks on.
I wanted the lyrics from all the songs in the ballet to reflect the storytelling.
THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL
YOU REALLY TURN ME ON
YOU KNOCK ME OFF OF MY FEET
MY LONELY DAYS ARE GONE
George Fenton was in charge of creating the music for the film. Together we sat in my apartment and went through many CDs, talking about the type of dance and the type of music appropriate for each moment. He created musical transitions between the numbers and was so collaborative and supportive of the choreography.
Cooper’s Ballet had five set changes. The freedom of knowing that in editing we could simply cut to the next set and not have to wait for set changes was a dream. After Cooper and Jody ride off, we cut to Cooper’s bedroom for a pas de deux bed ballet before moving on to a dance studio where Cooper and Charlie fight over Jody, accidentally striking her. She runs out, taking us to a New York City street set. Here I used the song “If I Was the One” by Ruff Endz. In this scene, Cooper and Charlie vie for Jody’s love. I gave Ethan and Sascha an acting challenge – “You’re going to play ‘Can you top this?’ to win the girl.” They each brought their best, taking turns to outdo the another with magnificent leaps and turns. This lyrical song was perfect for this pas de trois.
IF I WAS THE ONE WHO WAS LOVING YOU, BABY
THE ONLY TEARS YOU'D CRY WOULD BE TEARS OF JOY
The finale of this ballet is the fantastically rhythmic song “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai. Jody had decided neither man is for her, and the only thing to make her happy is dance. With that, her ballet shoes magically turn red and we do a jazz ballet. Her fellow female dancers join in, blocking Cooper and Charlie from getting to Jody.
DANCE YEAH, HEY NOTHING LEFT FOR ME TO DO BUT DANCE
OFF THESE BAD TIMES I'M GOING THROUGH JUST DANCE, HEY
GOT CANNED HEAT IN MY HEALS TONIGHT, BABY
The number ends with Jody triumphantly dancing by herself, performing endless fouettés onstage. As the curtain comes down, Cooper’s Ballet is embraced by the audience, propelling him to start his own company and Jody has made a decision about her future.
I was lucky Nick Hytner cast real dancers in these parts – not only real, but exceptional. It gave the story an authenticity we could never have achieved using just actors. The tensions between Jody, Charlie, and Cooper play out on the stage through dance. Amanda Schull was lovely and brought a vulnerability to the part. Her character longs to be in a dance world where she is accepted. Her journey is relatable because it explores her passion while she negotiates her way through the pangs of young love and romance. In the end, she finds her path and takes charge of her life.
The jazz dance class that I choreographed was completely fun, if not exhausting. We shot in Paul Taylor’s dance studios downtown. I used the Red Hot Chili Peppers funky and percussive remix of “Higher Ground”. The jazz dancers came from the casts of my shows Contact and A Christmas Carol. In the story, Cooper and Jody decide to take a jazz class on their day off from the ballet. It was great watching them muck in with the Broadway folks. We repeated the combination over and over as the cameras switched positions. This was August and the studios were very hot. The dancers were exhausted. At least the song made you want to dance no matter how tired you were. At one point, the dancer Sean Martin Hingston loudly announced, “Stro this combination is...” – I thought he was going to say fabulous – “...taxing!” Of course, everyone laughed. It was a hard day, but an exhilarating one.
It was quite brilliant that Nick cast Priscilla Lopez as the jazz teacher. Priscilla is best known for originating the role of Diana Morales in A Chorus Line. Right before the combination begins, she yells out, “Just dance the shit out of it!” That phrase has become iconic.
The salsa club was equally fun. Salsa was just one more dance style the actors had to conquer. We shot in the old Kit Kat Club in Time Square. Teaching the actors the basic salsa steps and then adding ballet lifts gave it a feeling of spontaneity. I used the infectious song "Eres Tu" by Elvis Crespo.
The entire crew enjoyed shooting the film, even the steady cam operator Andrew Casey wore a white tutu while he was weaving in and out of the dancers onstage. For all the group numbers, we cast dancers from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater – the best dancers in the country.
I felt honored to work with a director so wholly dedicated as Nick Hynter. He understands the joy of dance. He captured the trials and tribulations in this world but also showed the friendships, sacrifices, and camaraderie that exists among dancers. The movie was shot as if New York City itself was always dancing. Classical, modern, jazz, salsa, the rhythm of walking, running – the pounding beat of the city streets. I was thrilled to be part of it.
Center Stage has become a cult classic for dancers all over the world. Whenever I hear “Higher Ground” or “Canned Heat”, I am transported back to that time and those extraordinary dancers. If this movie inspires even just one kid to dance, then it is a triumph in my book.
Book by Carol Heikkinen
Direction by Nicholas Hytner
Choreography by Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon
Cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson
Set Design by Susan Bode
Costume Design by Ruth Myers
Sound Design by Michael Barosky
Musical Direction by George Fenton