It’s the 20th anniversary of Center Stage, the cult-classic dance flick about aspiring ballerina Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) who is caught in a love triangle between bad boy dance star Cooper Nielson (Ethan Stiefel) and nice guy dance student Charlie Sims (Sascha Radetsky). Center Stage hews closely to the classic teen romance trope—boy meets girl, boy gets girl, girl realizes boy is kind of a jerk and dumps him for the nice guy who’s been hiding in plain sight all along—but it’s also so much more than that. How many teen movies feature major dance stars in lead roles (Stiefel and Radetsky), the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet as extras, excerpts from actual classical ballet repertoire (Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes), and a Tony Award–winning theater director (Nicholas Hytner) at the helm?
Tomorrow evening, American Ballet Theatre is hosting Up Close and Center Stage, a cast reunion with Amanda Schull and ABT’s Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky, as well as Zoë Saldana, who played Jody’s talented-but-jaded dancer friend Eva Rodriguez, her first film role. The reunion will start at 7:30 p.m. ET on the company’s YouTube channel. Tickets are available for a special Zoom cocktail hour fundraiser 75 minutes before curtain to help support ABT’s dancers, crew, ballet masters, musicians, and faculty during the company’s COVID-19 closure through the ABT Crisis Relief Fund.
Center Stage’s joyous depiction of what it is to be a dancer continues to inspire today’s young dance talent. And to celebrate that, BAZAAR.com has invited current ABT corps members to re-create the playful Susan Stroman choreography from the movie’s iconic jazz class scene, with ABT soloist Calvin Royal III standing in for their teacher. Check it out below.
Ahead, we speak with the dancer and actress at the center of it all, Schull—who after starring in Center Stage danced professionally with the San Francisco Ballet and has had a number of recurring roles on TV shows including Suits—about her memories of her time at the fictional American Ballet Academy.
How does it feel to be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Center Stage?
I sure have been enjoying myself with all of the walks down memory lane and reconnecting with some of my old friends. It’s just so amazing to consider who we were when we did that movie, to who we are now personally and professionally.
Have you guys kept in touch over the years?
I haven’t seen Ethan in quite a while. Sascha and I have seen each other a few times. Susan [May Pratt, who played star student Maureen] started a text chain with me and Zoë recently. I’m a new mom, so we started all sending each other videos and photos of our kids. I’m beginning sleep training with my son, and you can hear his monitor on one of my voice memos. Zoë sent me a voice memo back saying, “Please call me whenever you need to as you’re going through this.” That was really sweet. She has three boys, so I trust she knows what she’s doing!
Let’s take another walk down memory lane. When you were cast to star in Center Stage, had you considered acting?
I had done musical theater and that sort of thing when I was younger, but I didn’t know how to go about acting professionally. It seemed really daunting and kind of farfetched. And on top of all of that, I also knew that I needed to dance. I needed to get that out of my system. It just so happened that I was in the right place at the right time to be able to do both of those things when a Center Stage casting agent came to watch a rehearsal for my student workshop at San Francisco Ballet School.
You had some pretty amazing costars in Center Stage. Ethan Stiefel, now on the ABT faculty, was an ABT principal at the time. Sascha Radetsky, now artistic director of the ABT Studio Company, was an ABT soloist. And there are some other dancers and choreographers who worked on the film that were, or would soon become, very famous. What are some of the best cameos?
Warren Carlyle, now a major Broadway choreographer, is in the jazz class scene. Tony Award winner Susan Stroman was the main choreographer for the film, and Christopher Wheeldon, now one of the top international ballet choreographers, staged Jonathan’s ballet in the student workshop scene. And, of course, there’s former ABT principal Julie Kent, now artistic director of Washington Ballet, who is just like this astral goddess in the dance world. She played principal dancer Kathleen Donahue.
Did you ever get starstruck?
After I got the part, they wanted me to come down to L.A. for a producer session. It was the morning after my student workshop, and I remember walking into the waiting area and the first person I saw was figure skater Ilia Kulik. He had been cast to play my fellow student dancer Sergei. He had just won gold at the Olympics, and I was such a huge fan of his. I just remember thinking, Holy cow.
It was kind of the same meeting Ethan and Sascha. They would just sort of pop into this basement studio that we were rehearsing in and learn choreography in, like, 10 minutes that had taken me two hours and be phenomenal. And then they’d go back and perform at the Met. I was the only dancer in the movie who wasn’t a professional dancer quite yet, and I just thought the world of them.
Zoë Saldana and Susan May Pratt were professional actors rather than dancers, and they had dance doubles, right?
They did. Aesha Ash, then a member of the New York City Ballet corps, was Zoë’s dance double. She was recently named to the School of American Ballet’s permanent faculty.
But if you watch Eva, there’s a scene in particular I’m thinking of where she’s in silhouette practicing in the studio late at night. And that’s Zoë’s port de bras, her upper body. She does a little combination like arabesque–arabesque–renversé. She had a much more elegant port de bras than I did, I can tell you that. She carried herself beautifully.
What was the funniest thing that happened on set?
Probably being asked for my autograph. I don’t know why this gentleman came up to our trailer one day. Maybe he recognized some of the dancers. But I remember, Sascha and I signed our names on a piece of paper for this guy, and he didn’t like the way Sascha signed his name and made him redo it. And I remember being really nervous after that, like, “I need to start practicing my autograph, so I don’t get requests for redos!” I still don’t have a great autograph. I clearly need to take this pandemic time to work things out.
What was it like filming onstage at Lincoln Center?
It was pretty wild. It occurred to me recently that everything was shot on location. We didn’t shoot anything on a sound stage or a green screen. We also shot on the streets of New York. That’s me on the back of Ethan’s own motorcycle. I do remember that they didn’t want us to go very far, probably for insurance purposes, but Ethan just took off. I remember feeling very naughty.
Were you scared?
You know, I don’t remember being scared. A good male partner is sort of aware of everything at all times. They have eyes in the back of their head. They’re familiar with the female dancer’s body weight and shifts and everything. And I totally trusted him.
I guess you guys also had to do a lot together in that film, from dancing together to doing that Brooklyn loft scene …
The bedroom scene! That was actually the first scene Ethan and I shot together.
How did he do?
We reshot it. Neither of us had done anything like that before. A month later after we had been dancing together and were much more comfortable with one another, we went back to that very toasty apartment and shot it again.
Did you have any sense at the time of what a cult classic this movie was going to become?
It didn’t even dawn on me that people were going to watch it, to be perfectly honest with you. I filmed every single day of that entire shoot, and it was the most fun summer of my entire life. The fact that I was getting paid to dance and act was bananas. It’s a huge compliment that people continue to enjoy something that I got to be a part of when I was 20.
Do you have a favorite Center Stage quote? There are so many memorable ones, from “Whatever you feel, just dance it” to “Forget about the steps—just dance the shit out of it!”
Well, definitely nothing I said! Everything that Megan Pepin said cracked me up. She played the dance student Anna. There’s a moment when she walks offstage after doing her number and says, “Did you see how on I was tonight?” And she does this little grunt afterwards. We all knew someone like that in our company or at our school.
Your line, “Cooper, you’re an amazing dancer, and you’re a great choreographer, but as a boyfriend you kind of suck,” ranks up there! You also have some pretty great looks in the film.
How’s my hair, right? That was all done by a fabulous hairstylist Lyn Quiyou. No hair spray or gel was used at all. And she really set me up for a future of disappointment as far as hairstylists go, because to this day, I won’t let anybody use hair spray on me and it’s hard to get those results without it if you’re not Lyn.
She created a different hairstyle for every single scene that we shot, and when we wrapped, she gave me a little box of all the wax, hair ties, and hair pins she used, all neatly organized. I joined San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice and I brought that box with me to the theater every single day that I danced. I was sort of channeling Jody with Lyn’s guidance for all my performances.
What’s your favorite Jody updo?
The day that Jody gets called in to the company director’s office and told that she doesn’t have great feet and that maybe she should hang it up, she has this braid situation going over my head, kind of like Heidi. I loved that one. I’ve never been able to replicate it.
Do you still dance?
I danced until I was 35 weeks pregnant, and I was really looking forward to going back to class after having him, but that obviously hasn’t been possible during the pandemic. I was just texting this morning with one of the women from the ballet class I take regularly in Los Angeles, and we’re trying to figure out a time when we can Zoom with all of our other friends from our barre. Two of my best friends from the barre are in their early 80s, and we would take class five days a week together. We’d all go to class half an hour early to stretch. But who am I kidding? It was really to see the ladies. And I miss it so much.
I try to do my own little thing at home. It’s really neat seeing how a lot of dancers have been putting free classes on Instagram. I’ve been taking a couple of Pilates and yoga classes via the account @worldwide_ballet_class, which was started by Rubén Martín and Diego Cruz, two dancers I know from my time at San Francisco Ballet. They have been inviting teachers from all over the world. Julie Kent taught class a couple of days ago.
Would you like for your son to take ballet one day?
Definitely. I think that ballet teaches so much more than steps. It’s mental, as well as physical, and teaches discipline and dedication. I think that it would be wonderful for him to have that opportunity.
Attend the Center Stage Cast Reunion
Book Tickets for the Zoom Pre-party Fundraiser
Buy or Rent Center Stage
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