CENTER STAGE - About the production
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. "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 18th-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 MacMillan. 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.
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."