Sunday, June 26, 2016

Center Stage: On Pointe (Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched two “world premiere” movies on Lifetime that were not thrillers about psycho husbands/wives/lovers/maids/nannies/children/Uber drivers/whatever but were instead “inspirational” stories about young heroines trying to achieve their big dreams despite the opposition of those around them. The first was called Center Stage: On Pointe (“pointe,” so spelled, is the ballet term meaning to dance while standing on your toes), which made it seem like a PBS documentary about dance but was in fact a fictional film and, according to an “trivia” poster, it’s actually the third in a series of dramatic TV-movies made in Canada about young dancers competing with each other for a slot in a ballet company. The plot centers around Bella Parker (Nicole Muñoz, who looks as Latina as her name makes her sound and who doesn’t look all that credible as the sister of the actress playing her sister in the film), who’s working as a waitress and studying modern dance. She’s the sister of star ballerina Kate Parker (Rachele Brooke Smith), internationally famous ballerina, and she has a big-time crisis of confidence because she knows she can’t do ballet anywhere nearly as well as her sister. She’s also surprisingly stocky for a dancer — or an actress playing one — in 2016; she’s a nice-looking woman but “full-figured,” as the euphemism goes, and though she moves well she doesn’t seem all that agile. She decides nonetheless to try out for the American Ballet Company just when its artistic director, Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), has been told by his principal funder that classical ballet is no longer popular enough to sell tickets and he must therefore add modern, jazz and hip-hop dancing to his programs, which means finding new dancers who can do those styles. So Bella, using the last name “Miller” (I found it amusing that she starts the movie as Charlie Parker’s namesake and ends it as Glenn Miller’s!), signs up just when the company is looking for people with her sort of talent, though the company’s repertoire demands that its dancers know both ballet and modern.

Bella makes the first cut of auditions despite the opposition of the dragon-lady ballet instructor who doesn’t think she’ll ever be a ballet dancer, especially since she didn’t start training at age three (I remember reading Agnes DeMille’s memoir of her first days in ballet school and her recollection that she was looked on as a late bloomer because she started at the advanced age of seven). This qualifies her to attend the company’s “Training School,” a sort of ballet boot camp (the phrase is actually used in the script) in the country, isolated not only from social distractions but wi-fi and cell-phone signals as well, during which the dancers will be paired off in male-female teams and eventually judged as a unit — either both team members will make the company or neither will. What ensues is basically Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games — the aspiring dancers may not literally be killing each other but they do pull tricks like trying to trip or drop each other during practices, and the unscrupulousness and nastiness of the rivalries between them, as well as the budding romances between male and female students, sometimes with their partners and sometimes not (though this is the world of ballet the script defies the stereotype by making none of the males openly, or even clandestinely, Gay), and the nastiest dancer, an arrogant little prick named Tommy (Kenny Wormakl, who assuming he’s doing his own on-screen dancing instead of using a double would actually be a good choice to play Gene Kelly in a biopic if anyone makes one), takes himself out of the running by doing a leap his teacher warns him he isn’t ready for, landing badly and breaking his leg. Bella (one wonders if the writer, unidentified on, deliberately cribbed that name from the heroine of the Twilight cycle) lets slip to another of the students, Allegra (Maude Green) — who already washed out of a similar training program in Dallas and whose last chance to make a ballet company this is — that she’s Kate Parker’s younger sister. Allegra tells Tommy, and Tommy immediately starts a rumor that Bella has been guaranteed a slot in the program in exchange for superstar Kate Parker making a guest appearance with the company. It’s not true, but the Black girl who helped spread the rumor is thrown out of the program.

At the last minute, Allegra’s partner quits the trials to go off to Paris and join a dance company there with his girlfriend (whom we hear talked about but never actually see), leaving Allegra bereft. Bella nobly agrees to sacrifice her own ambitions and lend her partner Damon (Barton Cowperthwaite) to Allegra so she can have her shot — but Damon, who’s in love with Bella (as she is with him), refuses to let her get away with that. Instead the three dance as a group and the imperious ballet mistress announces that if they’re going to dance as a threesome, they’ll be admitted or not as a threesome. Of course they are, and the finale shows the company with its new members giving its first fusion performance of ballet and hip-hop, Bella on her way to stardom and her sister showing up backstage after the performance to congratulate her. It’s a reasonably well-done movie, decently acted and with a lot of hot shots of nice-looking young men, twinkie-ish but at least muscular (which turns me on a lot more than the boyish concentration-camp victim look common to most Gay male porn these days), though alas only in the opening scene, with the American Ballet Company giving one of its pure-ballet performances to an audience that hasn’t filled the hall, do we actually get to see one of these hot guys shirtless. Center Stage: On Pointe is an O.K. movie whose best aspect is its skill in dramatizing the clash between ballet and more current forms of dance, and in particular how Bella is torn between them and how she’s a skilled modern dancer but has to learn the ballet vocabulary from the ground up. She’s also put on the spot when she’s asked to help teach the ballet specialists in the class about modern dance, and we get some quirky lines from the script about how ballet turns movements into feelings and modern dance turns feelings into movements (I’m not sure exactly what that means but it sounds convincing enough, and it ties in with the film’s depiction of modern dance as freer, looser and more improvisatory than ballet).

One aspect of the film that amused me was that its direction was credited to “Director X.” At first I thought this was a latter-day version of Alan Smithee (the made-up name used between 1968 and 2000 by Screen Directors’ Guild members who were so embarrassed by the low quality of a film that they didn’t want it credited under their real name — though one critic actually did an auteur analysis of the films of Alan Smithee as if he were a real person, and not surprisingly concluded that the main characteristic of Smithee was the wide variety of styles and genres with which he’d worked — and not many directors used the “Smithee” pseudonym because it would mean giving up residual royalties for the film), but it turns out “Director X.” — with the period at the end — is the birth name of Black director Julien Christian Lutz (he’s mixed Trinidadian and Swiss), who specialized in making rap music videos for such major names in the rap field as Drake, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, Usher, John Mayer, Korn, and Iggy Azalea. (I’ve heard of some of these people but I’ll have to take’s word for it that “Wiz Khalifa” is a star.) His first film outside the music-video world was Undone, also known as Across the Line, filmed in 2015, which from its synopsis seems to be much like Center Stage: On Pointe except it’s about an aspiring male hockey player instead of an aspiring female dancer: “A young Black NHL hopeful living in a racially divided Nova Scotian community finds his career prospects in jeopardy when tensions in his community come to a head. On the strength of this film Director X. looks like a potentially good filmmaker and it’ll be interesting to see if he can broaden his range of subjects.