Sixteen years ago, Columbia Pictures released a little film called Center Stage.
Set in New York City, the movie followed Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull), a new recruit to the prestigious American Ballet Academy, as she and her fellow students vied for glory, each other’s affections, and, most of all, a spot in the American Ballet Company. It went on to gross $26 million off an $18 million budget, and many still consider it to be the best goddamn dance movie in the canon.
Now, a teenager’s life span later, the budding "fempire" of Lifetime brings us Center Stage: On Pointe, which is actually the third installment in the Center Stage franchise. (The events of the 2008 TV movie, Center Stage: Turn It Up, do have a bearing on the latest film; if you, like many, haven’t seen it, here’s the helpful Wikipedia summary.)
On Pointe follows Bella, a modern dancer in New York City who finds herself among the tights-and-leotard crowd vying for a spot in the ABC when ballet director Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher, returning from the original film) decides he needs to diversify the company’s dance portfolio to save it from bankruptcy.
Aside from the inherent ridiculousness of the premise (which rests on the idea that dancers who are phenomenally talented in one style will be utterly lost in others, a theory So You Think You Can Dance has repeatedly disproved), On Pointe hits many of the same beats as the first film, a strategy the Step Up franchise has used to box office success. On Pointe, on the other hand, mostly proves to be a great exercise in rediscovering your appreciation for the 2000 original. Hit play on the VCR, because here are five things Center Stage did so much better than On Pointe.
Center Stage’s conflicts actually meant something; On Pointe’s mostly feel empty
The most basic element of any good story is stakes — something the protagonist wants with every fiber of her being. In Center Stage, it’s obvious what that is; from the very beginning of the film, wide-eyed Jody is in awe at her good fortune for being chosen to enroll in the American Ballet Academy and insistent that all she wants in life is to be a ballet dancer. Eva (Zoe Saldana) also wants the same thing, though her goal is sometimes clouded by self-sabotage.
By contrast, On Pointe’s Bella is initially dismissive of the offer to audition for ABA, and while she says she wants to be a dancer, it’s never clear why ABA would be the best way to achieve that goal. There are plenty of modern dance companies and troupes; why is putting herself through the ABA wringer the only chance she has to go pro? As the sage Eva said back in Center Stage, "I started dancing long before this stupid workshop, and I’m gonna keep on dancing long after it."
Oddly, some of the supporting characters in On Pointe are better-drawn than Bella is. Allegra (Maude Green) is a willowy blonde who initially seems like the new Maureen (played by Susan May Pratt in the original), all snobbery and perfect technique, but turns out to just be shy because she was bullied out of her old company; she sees ABA as her last shot at success.
Where Center Stage mostly dealt in internal conflict, On Pointe mines its drama from external sources. Jody’s physical struggles were apparent as she tried to mold her turnout and technique to her teachers’ demands, and Eva’s issues mostly came down to an attitude adjustment.
Bella and Allegra, meanwhile, suffer the wrath of an embittered instructor/former prima ballerina and a nervous dance partner, respectively. These troubles aren’t negligible by any means, but overcoming self-doubt is a hallmark of great sports movies and one of their most compelling sources of dramatic tension — and while On Pointe tries to explore the trope (there’s even a scene with Bella crying in the rain), it never really sinks in.
Center Stage put some actual effort into its world-building, while On Pointe practically exists in a vacuum
The dance scenes should ideally be the most memorable part of any dance movie, but beyond the tutus, the world of Center Stage was surprisingly richly developed. The movie featured several brief scenes that added vivid color and texture in a short time: Eva’s friends spying on her audition; our heroes going to a salsa club to let off some steam; Jim’s (Eion Bailey) friends telling dirty jokes during his date with Maureen; Jodie taking that amazing dance class with Cooper at the Broadway Dance studio — even a scene of Maureen and her mother going through the lunch line in the ABA cafeteria told the audience so much about the characters and their relationship.
Meanwhile (likely due to budget constraints), On Pointe literally drives its cast into the middle of the woods and isolates them there for the majority of the movie, with only their good-cop/bad-cop teachers and each other to interact with. There’s no real sense of place, no hint of a larger something beyond the walls of the studio and the framework of the movie.
Plus, for some reason Bella’s sister Kate, the amazing ballerina Bella has spent her whole life trying to emulate, is constantly referenced but not actually seen until the end of the movie, given less screen time than the crotchety old guy Bella serves pie to at the diner where she works (I’ll call him Murray, because if that’s not his name it might as well be).
Center Stage’s dancing and soundtrack were superlative; On Pointe’s are lackluster at best
The late '90s and early 2000s were a banner period for pop music, and the Center Stage soundtrack reflects that. Jamiroquai, Michael Jackson, Ruff Endz, Mandy Moore — so much Mandy Moore — all provide the backing music for the movie’s indelible, infectiously fun dance scenes. (To this day, I can’t hear Red Hot Chili Peppers’ "Higher Ground" without flashing back to Jody and Cooper fouettéing through their downtown dance class.)
And maybe it’s just a sign of my old age (one of the actresses in On Pointe was born a year after the original movie came out), but none of the music — or the dance numbers — in the sequel pack quite the same punch. One On Pointe performance is set to the snoozy melody of Adele’s "Hello," and while the dancing is gorgeous, it doesn’t inspire the pure sense of joy that Jody’s ridiculous costume-changing "Canned Heat" number did.
Most egregiously, though, On Pointe never manages to make it clear why Bella deserves a spot in the American Ballet Company over all the other dancers vying for the same opportunity. Yes, she’s sweet and supportive and clearly loves to dance, and as a bonus, there’s a nice message of body positivity that both she and the movie embrace — but the actual dancing we see from her never makes Bella rise above the pack.
Again, budget constraints are a real thing; I understand why On Pointe isn’t overflowing with slickly choreographed dance numbers in every other scene. But there are some really niftily edited sequences showing dancers auditioning and practicing that makes me wonder why the film’s creative team didn’t save their big production guns for the more climactic performances.
On Pointe lacks the gleeful backstage gossip that Center Stage did so well
A professional dancer’s job is to make near-impossible physical feats look easy, never showing a single iota of pain or the strain or fatigue. But part of what made Center Stage so fun was its dishy (albeit overdramatized) look at just how the tulle-covered sausage gets made, thanks to the attention it paid to backstage drama going on at the ABC.
From Cooper and Jonathan’s feud over love and power to Maureen’s eating disorder to the rather sordid business of securing donations for the ballet from lonely widows — not to mention the sometimes cutthroat competition between dancers — Center Stage pulled up the tutu just a bit to hint at the complex machinations behind the spectacle.
On Pointe does nod toward the business side of the equation — the whole reason Bella enters the picture, after all, is that Jonathan and the ABC are adding modern dance because they’re broke — but it’s mostly laid out in a single, hilariously direct scene and then hardly mentioned again.
The returning cast only underscores how the new movie falls short
Fans of Center Stage will notice a few familiar faces within the On Pointe cast1. There’s Peter Gallagher as ABC director Jonathan Reeves, his imposingly luscious head of hair now salt-and-pepper. Charlie (Sascha Radetsky) is now "head ballet master" and married to Jody (who has apparently "conquered the European dance world," which is a thing, and whom we sadly only see in clips of the first film played on a monitor for present-day students). And Cooper Nielsen (Ethan Stiefel) is back at ABA but on the business side, all sharp suits and sensible haircut.
To be fair, Tommy (Kenny Wormald) and Kate (Rachele Brooke Smith) are technically also returning characters, though from the 2008 TV movie, which not that many people saw.
Gallagher is always a welcome presence and brings a certain amount of dignity to the proceedings, but otherwise, the returning cast members add little besides recognizable faces. Radetsky is a professional dancer, not an actor, and it shows even more in this film than it did in the original. (His Emo Spider-Man hair doesn’t help.) And Stiefel’s Cooper, his floppy hair close-cropped and his feud with Jonathan apparently buried, lacks the cocky charm that once made his character such a believably caddish love interest.
There’s a moment fairly early on in On Pointe when Jonathan and Charlie gather the new recruits to congratulate them. To illustrate the students’ potential, Jonathan puts on a tape of the climactic dance number in the original Center Stage, with a crimson-clad Jody whirling between Charlie and Cooper. Charlie watches his younger self onscreen with an expression that is maybe supposed to be happy but comes across rather melancholy.
It’s a fitting summary of how On Pointe made me feel: While you can look back fondly on your glory days, and even let them inform what’s ahead, no matter how you try there’s just no way to truly recapture the magic.
Center Stage: On Pointe premieres Saturday, June 25, at 8 pm ET on Lifetime.