Cue up "Canned Heat" by Jamiroquai, because Center Stage is turning 20.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner and released on May 12, 2000, Center Stage follows a group of young dancers as they're accepted into the prestigious (and fictitious) American Ballet Academy in the heart of New York City, loosely based on the School of American Ballet. It's one of very few movies made about dance that actually "got ballet right," which is why it's stood the test of time as a favorite of both ballet dancers and non-dancers alike for two decades, according to star Amanda Schull.
"I was cast because Nick wanted to get ballet right. He didn’t want an actor," she tells EW. "The studio wanted an actor who could dance and use a body double if they need to. They actually went through a substantial list of actors who said that they could dance and realized quickly that it wasn’t going to work that way."
Schull — who had been dancing since the age of 3 and had just accepted a contract with the San Francisco Ballet at the time when she was offered the lead role as Jody Sawyer in Center Stage — credits Hytner's determination to cast actual ballet dancers for the film's long-lasting legacy as a real homage to dance. "He was a huge ballet fan," she says. "Somebody else who didn’t know ballet or wasn’t a fan of dance or didn’t understand it probably would have hired someone and just had dance doubles and it would have been a very different thing."
Another reason why the film feels so authentic is that it was all shot on location in New York City. From the gorgeous, spacious theaters to real lofts and brownstones to bars and even on a boat, Center Stage took every opportunity to infuse the magic of the city into the film. Here, Schull and the movie's production designer David Gropman break down all the places that have made Center Stage (available on disc and digital) dance for the past 20 years and beyond.
The filmmakers shot all the performance and backstage scenes on location at the David H. Koch Theater (then called the New York State Theater), part of the Lincoln Center complex, for over a week. "It was beautiful to dance onstage there," Schull says. "I remember getting really choked up being onstage at the Lincoln Center bowing for this fictitious audience. I was just so swept up in the entire experience that I didn’t have an opportunity to think to myself, 'Am I worthy of being here on this stage with these people?' The theater was so gorgeous, there's Peter Gallagher and Julie Kent giving us a standing ovation, it was pretty emotional."
Schull was just getting started in her professional dance career, so dancing onstage at the Lincoln Center next to legendary professional dancers like Ethan Stiefel who played Cooper Nielsen, Sascha Radetsky who played Charlie Sims, and Kent who played Kathleen Donahue, could have paralyzed her with anxiety. Luckily, she was so exhausted during filming that she didn't stop to think about what it all meant at the time, especially since it was also her first film role. "Now I would have overanalyzed every detail," she says. "Then, I was fairly sleep-deprived and so I didn’t have time to realize that I could have been over my head."
For Gropman, his job ended up being very easy for all the scenes shot at the Lincoln Center. "It’s a very iconic theater and it’s so photogenic on film," he tells EW. "We were very lucky to have the cooperation of the Lincoln Center and the Julliard School so that we could use a combination of exterior scenes shot at the Julliard School in the Lincoln Center, the lobby where we shot the beginning of the film, and certain scenes at Fordham University which is just across the way from the Julliard School. That’s where we shot Jonathan’s [Gallagher] office and where Maureen’s [Susan May Pratt] mother [Debra Monk] works."
The only time that Center Stage wasn't shot on location was for any scene taking place in the ABA rehearsal studios. "We were lucky to make this story about a New York dance school in New York, at Lincoln Center, and only on studio sets when we had to," Gropman says. "We were able to be honest." So any scene featuring ABA ballet class, late-night practice (bloody feet and all), or that soapy sponge fight during "detention" was filmed on set at a Brooklyn studio.
"It was a huge stage set with a completely sprung dance floor which is the kind of floor dancers need to practice on," Gropman says. "You had to have mirrors that work both for the dancers and for the camera. And then creating that great, big skyline of New York out the windows, it was a great challenge. We also shot on stage sets for the dormitory rooms as well."
Building a set for scenes involving actors who are en pointe required a lot of work to ensure that it was safe for the dancers. "They did everything as they should be for dancers – do you know how hard it is to build a sprung floor for ballet?" Schull says. "They even built foot-washing stations for dancers to rinse their feet off. Everything about it was perfectly curated."
There’s no better way to blow off ballet-related steam and dance whatever you're feeling than by getting drunk at a salsa bar with your closest friends. So Jody, Charlie, Eva (Zoe Saldana), and the rest of their group take a night off — and work up some "sweet sweat" — salsa-dancing at The Kit Kat Club, a former bar in Times Square, to remind themselves of why they love to dance. "I specifically remember those were a couple of long days on location," Schull says of having to learn a different style of dance in a short amount of time. "That was a blast."
And just like with the New York State Theater, Gropman was able to rely on the actual location to serve its purpose on camera. "In the late '90s it was a pretty popular club," Gropman says. "It looked perfect, didn’t it? We didn’t have to do much to that location to make it work."
Jody has the heart of a professional ballerina, but not the feet. Her struggles with her "bad turnout" continue to frustrate her at ABA, so another way she reignites her passion for dance is by taking a jazz class to "just dance the s— out of it," even though ABA students aren't supposed to take classes at outside studios. Gropman chose to shoot this scene at Paul Taylor Dance Company’s former location in SoHo because of a personal connection: he previously served as production designer for Taylor.
"It was sentimental; that was a studio I had spent a lot of time in," Gropman says. "Paul Taylor was a friend and it was a great joy to be able to do something in his studio. It was perfectly appropriate for where a jazz class would take place. It has that great view, and we added a little bit of neon in the window."
After Jody accidentally runs into infamous choreographer/ballet's bad boy Cooper in the class, he whisks her away for a spontaneous date on the street outside the studio, which Schull reveals was actually shot on the curb below Taylor's studio. "Ethan actually is a motorcycle fanatic, but for insurance [reasons] I wasn’t supposed to be on it," she says. "But after we had done a few takes, Ethan just took off for the first and last motorcycle ride of my life. [Laughs] We didn’t go very far. We just went around the block but it was cobblestone streets! I remember thinking, 'Oh, we’re rebels.'"
After their motorcycle ride across the Manhattan Bridge, Jody and Cooper’s "date" ends in his apartment in pre-gentrified Dumbo, Brooklyn for a one-night stand (although it takes her quite a while to realize that as a boyfriend, he kinda sucks). "It was a loft with a great view of the city in a wonderfully rough neighborhood," Gropman says of the two-day shoot on location. "It was cool and bohemian, perfect for Cooper."
And Schull remembers the loft for being hot – but not because of the hookup. "It was probably close to 115 degrees because it was in the middle of summer," she says. "We're in Brooklyn, so just consider the muggy factor. And we had to have all the windows closed for sound purposes with all the lights on and all the crew generating heat. I was wearing tights, a leotard, jeans, a shirt, and an angora sweater. Between every single smooch I was sopping up sweat. And it was the very first scene Ethan and I ever shot!"
As for all the scenes that take place in Jim’s (Eion Bailey) apartment, that was shot on location in a different part of Brooklyn, on South Portland Ave. That's where he confronts his ballet dancer girlfriend Maureen about her bulimia and she delivers the iconic line: "I am the best goddamn dancer in the American Ballet Academy. Who the hell are you? Nobody."
"That was a brownstone in Brooklyn that we found and loved," Gropman says. "It was perfect for him, this med student who was working in catering to help pay for his tuition. It made sense for him and it helped give even more flavor to how all these kids were following their dreams."
To celebrate their friend Erik's (Shakiem Evans) birthday, Jody, Charlie, Eva, and the rest of their crew ride a limo through Times Square, which Schull says was filmed practically "because it was done 20 years ago and they didn’t even consider faking a lot of that stuff." And their day ends with a ferry ride to see the Statue of Liberty. "That takes place on a real New York ferry on the Hudson River and we just hired a boat," Gropman says with a laugh, noting there wasn't much for him to do to make that location camera-ready.
"They actually chartered a boat and we went out to sea. I get seasick, so I spent that entire day barfing my brains out," Schull says with a laugh. "That whole day we were out on the water, you can’t get off the boat so you’re sitting there while other people are shooting their scenes too. I don’t remember having any breaks, I just remember them having a bucket off camera for me."
Since she never had to pause a scene to use that bucket, the director took notice. "I remember Nick complimenting me afterwards for being able to keep it together," Schull says. "The phrase he used was, 'You can’t keep a good girl down.' I was very proud of myself." Just like when Jody landed her fouetté turn combination at the end of her workshop dance performance, Schull earned that standing ovation for not vomiting in the middle of a scene.
A version of this story appears in the May 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, which you can buy here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.