Real-life besties Sascha Radetsky (left) and Ethan Stiefel - aka Charlie and Cooper - reminiscing Center stage20 years later (Photo by Joe Carrotta)
On the hearing process
Ethan Stiefel (Cooper Nielson): One day I walked into the American Ballet Theatre studios at 890 Broadway, and I had one of those yellow slips of paper in my mailbox that simply said, "Laurence Mark. Columbia Pictures. Please call." Out of nowhere. And I called, and Larry - one of the producers of the film - answered directly. He knew the dance very well and had seen me perform several times. He was a fan. He said Columbia was working on a dance movie, and he thought I would be a good fit for it. I was a little surprised - there aren't many dance movies made, period - but of course I was interested. I mean, what an opportunity.
Sascha Radetsky (Charlie): Ethan and I were buddies from afar. We met as kids at a summer school intensive - I was 11 and he was 15, I think? But we ended up together in ABT. And I remember in January 1999, Ethan said, "Oh, yeah, I'm doing this movie." It was like it was written for him.
Erin Baiano (student at the American Ballet Academy): Yeah, I heard that this was all a star vehicle for Ethan.
Stiefel: I haven't heard that!
Julie Kent (Kathleen Donahue): I remember Ethan mentioning to me during an appearance in Japan that he had just been to California to meet with a director about a possible film. It all sounded exciting, but rather vague. And then, a few months later, he said they wanted me to read a part.
Amanda Schull (Jody Sawyer): For me, it was a bit of an artistic situation imitating life. I was a senior at San Francisco Ballet School, and we were rehearsing our end-of-year showcase, which was an opportunity for Helgi (Tomasson, SFB's Artistic Director) and other business leaders to see us perform. Helgi's assistant walked into rehearsal and whispered something to the play's choreographer, who had a very dry sense of humor - she said something like, "We are going to have a Hollywood fantasy producer watching us today." I straightened up immediately. I happened to have one of the lead roles in this ballet and I activated it. At the end, Helgi's assistant gave me a script - my failure had caught the producer's attention. The next day I read my scenes for the producer between rehearsals, while I was beet red and sweaty. I was reading for Jody and Maureen, but I told the producer, "You know, I like Jody's part more." That's really embarrassing, looking back! But I'found out later that'afterwards, the producer had called the casting director and said, "I'found Jody Sawyer."
Amanda Schull with director Nicholas Hytner (courtesy of Schull)
Baiano: I had just quit my job at ABT, so I only had time on my hands. Someone from the casting called me and asked me to audition, I don't remember how. Actually, they gave me a camp for Jody first, then called me back for Emily a few weeks later. But some of my friends read for Eva and other parts. I felt like everyone I knew had auditioned - all ABT, all New York City Ballet.
Radetsky: My role was originally written for Angel Corella (then - star of ABT, now - artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet). It was supposed to be Carlos, not Charlie. Which shows you that the writer really knew dance, and so did the director and the producer, because Angel is great. And I didn't read for Carlos originally - I read for the Russian, the Ilia Kulik part. I did it terribly.
Stiefel: Sascha was a seasoned actor at the time. He did commercials and filmed as a child.
Radetsky: He likes to remind people. Yes, it's somewhere on the Internet. I made a movie called Finally home- It was Adrien Brody's first film.
Stiefel: He went from working with Adrien Brody to working with me, poor guy.
Radetsky: I only work with captions. (Laughter.) But anyway, in the middle of ABT's Metropolitan Opera House season that summer, Angel blew out his ankle, so he couldn't do the film. I think at the beginning, the team still wanted to keep Carlos' name. They brought Joaquin de Luz (then ABT soloist and later director of NYCB) to read.
Schull: Later in the audition process, they took me to New York for screen tests, and I remember they were auditioning Joaquin for the Charlie part at the same time. He invited me to go watch ABT from the wings one night, to see Ethan dance. I remember thinking: even if this is the end of my journey with this movie, what chance do I have?
Radetsky: They also auditioned (then - NYCB dancer, now - L.A. Dance Project director) Benjamin Millepied for the Charlie / Carlos part. What would be the French for Charles? Char-LEE? Anyway, it was written for these other incredible dancers, and then by a stroke of fortune, I ended up with the gig.
Kent: I don't remember the scene I did for Kathleen's audition. But I remember talking to Nicholas (Hytner, the director of the film) at the audition to find out why he wanted to make this film. I liked his films and knew of his career as a theater director in London, but it seemed like a total left turn for him to do a teen ballet film. And he said he loved the art form, and the film company had done all this research, and they really thought that this film was going to speak to an audience of teenage girls and their moms - it was going to be very impactful for the whole generation. Clearly, it was true!
Schull (center) in the now iconic Central stage Sequence shot (courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
From the first days of shooting, and adaptation to the comedy
Schull: Before the shoot began, we rehearsed the jazz number in New York with (choreographer) Susan Stroman and her wonderful assistants, as well as the ballet numbers. They put me in an apartment near Lincoln Center. I felt very glamorous.
Stiefel: Stroman directed (Tony Award-winning musical) Contact at that time, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, and so we had some of our rehearsals there.
Schull: The guys were still in season at ABT at the beginning of the rehearsal period, so I started on my own at first. And thank God, because I wasn't nearly as fast a learner or strong a dancer as Ethan and Sascha. Once they joined the rehearsals, I remember being shocked at how quickly they learned everything. It was nothing It's up to them to pick up these ballets. Also, seeing Ethan's feet up close for the first time, I was totally stunned.
Stiefel: Stroman was brilliant, choreographing the Cooper Nielson ballet. She had never really worked with ballet dancers before, but she had a good handle on the structure and the feel she wanted for each passage. Then she would give us the freedom to suggest things - "Is there anything specific you can think of for this spot?" I'm also sure that the bike didn't exist in the Cooper ballet until I was cast. (Stiefel is, famously, a motorcycle enthusiast.)
Schull and Stiefel filming the motorcycle scene (courtesy of Schull)
Kent: I didn't have as much preparation to do as some of the other dancers. But my first real day on set was the biggest and most difficult scene for me! It was the moment in the theater, during the gala, when I have to tell Cooper "This is what we call acting". I walked in, boom, they shot him. I remember being grateful that it was a scene with Ethan. We had been characters together on stage several times before, so there was already a level of trust. I didn't have the same kind of nerves with him that, say, Peter Gallagher (who plays business manager Jonathan Reeves) - a big movie star I met in the makeup trailer, and then we had to go on set and play husband and wife. Although Peter couldn't have been nicer.
Stiefel: Some of us were definitely thrown in the deep end. The first scene I shot with Amanda was the love scene at Cooper's apartment. Maybe the thought was that without really knowing each other, we would have some energy or tension. But I would have to imagine that those first shots weren't very pretty, the first day, the first one. We ended up taking the stage again, a month later.
Radetsky: My first day was the scene on the ship, the Circle Line Cruise. My alarm didn't go off and they started shooting at 6am. I was late, my first day. So I was already mortified. We went out on the boat and we were supposed to have a kissing scene between me and Amanda. And poor Amanda got motion sickness.
Schull: They had to keep a bucket off camera for me to switch between takes. And then Sascha had to kiss me! He didn't complain, this sweet man.
Radetsky: I felt terrible, she was totally sickened by everything. And then the irony is that they ended up dropping the whole scene. We picked it up later, without the kiss. It was an interesting indoctrination in the process.
Schull and Radetsky (left) with Shakiem Evans and Victoria Born (aka Erik and Emily) in a scene from the film (courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
On the dance stages
Schull: Since I was not trained as an actor, the scenes with intense emotional dialogue made me nervous. But the dance sequences were great fun to shoot.
Stiefel: I loved that they chose such a sophisticated representative for the film. How great is (Sir Kenneth) MacMillan Romeo and Juliet balcony not? And then George Balanchine Stars and stripes has a different sensibility in terms of virtuosity and accessibility. You had everything from Shakespeare to a motorcycle on stage. It was diverse, and it wasn't watered down at all.
Kent: We really didn't adjust the MacMillan choreography at all for the camera. That's one of the things I'm most proud of in this film: how they captured the balcony clips. They got it so right - the choreography and the sense of performance, the set design.
Stiefel: They also filmed the Balanchine finale Theme and variationswith ABT dancers, me and Julie. And it was never used. I don't think I've ever seen it. Must be in the trunk somewhere.
Baiano: They were really smart about planning the dance stuff. For the class scenes, a lot of the New York City Ballet dancers had more time during that period of shooting, so you'll see them in the background. But then they brought in dancers from ABT to do "little swans" because that was ABT's representative.
Kent: Filming dance requires a different level of intensity - not just the old "hurry up and wait", but "hurry up, wait, then dance your heart out". It's hard for your body to produce a high level of physical energy over and over again, without being warm. But it always seemed to be a good mood on the set, a lot of young dancers really excited.
Radetsky: We were so excited to be there. There was a bit of a learning curve for the crew in terms of shooting the dance, so I remember some of the takes where we would give our best run, and the turns were great, but it turned out that they were focusing on ... the piano . (laughterIt didn't matter! We would go back.
Kent: Shoot "She's a heartbeat away from tattooing your name on her..." -Well, you can fill in the blank. This scene was funny, partly just because people didn't expect to hear those words come out of my mouth. That's not really my personality! But you really talk secretly on stage like that sometimes while you are dancing, so it was fun to shoot. Also, I thought that at the end of The dancers (Kent's 1987 film with Mikhail Baryshnikov), you see me getting a daisy tattoo on my cheek. What is it with these ballet movies that tattoos down there are a theme?
Stiefel and Schull dancing in "Cooper's Ballet" (courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Radetsky: I shot this scene with Ethan in the studio.
Baiano: What you don't see is that all the dance extras were in the studio for this dance. We were in the background clapping, like "Okay!"
Stiefel: Sascha and I really ad-libbed the whole dance there.
Radetsky: Well, let's talk about what actually happened. In the movie, the way it's supposed to go is Cooper does this jumping sequence in rehearsal and I can't keep up, and then later on, in the final performance, I do the whole virtuoso chain of steps, like, "I have you know." So we shot the stage part first. You'll see that I do a double tour, a spin, a double tour, a double tour - it wasn't a script, it was just "whatever you want to do." So that's what I did. And then later we shot the rehearsal scene, and you'll notice that Ethan does a double tour, double pirouette, double turn, double turn, double turn. I was like "Dude! Continuity won't work!" (Laughter.)
Stiefel: I guess it was a very Cooper thing to do, actually.
Baiano: We have to talk about the jazz class. C'is my absolute favorite.
Stiefel: To this day, if people want to gently mock me, they will pull out some moves from this scene, give me a little (makes jazz). Susan Stroman choreographed the whole thing, and the dancers are essentially the entire cast of Contact.
Baiano: Warren Carlyle (now a popular Broadway choreographer and director) is there!
Stiefel: They were full and full, every take. In fact, Robert Wersinger, he was one of the dancers, and I had already danced and been friends with him at New York City Ballet. He was the one who whispered in my ear, "What do you think of this girl?" or "Check her out!" So it was cool too to have a moment on screen with a friend I hadn't seen in a while.
Schull and Stiefel with the cast of the jazz class scene (courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
In the dynamic backstage
Schull: We were all pretty close. It was like a summer camp. The young kids spent every weekend together, going to one person's house or another. I shot every day for three months and I still couldn't get enough of the people I was working with. I shot 21 years on the movie set, and they decorated my trailer with streamers and flowers and gave me a cake, all of that. I have nothing scandalous or wild to share about it. (Laughter.) I just had the time of my life.
Baiano: With the dancers playing students and extras, most of the time we were really hanging out at the New York State Theatre (now the David H. Koch Theatre), where we were working anyway. So there was a strange and unfamiliar cinematic element, but it was also our own terrain, which helped us all become more comfortable.
Schull: The more experienced dancers were incredibly courteous. At the very beginning, Ethan left me a voicemail telling me what a good job he thought I was doing. I kept that for a long time. And I became close with Sascha and Stella (Abrera, now director of ABT and Radetsky's wife).
Baiano: The crew was super awesome. All the dancers worked long hours and were not divas about it. We're just used to that, but I think the crew really respected that work ethic, because that's not always the case on film.
Stiefel: The general feeling was that everyone involved really loved dance and wanted us to succeed.
Schull behind the scenes with the film crew (courtesy of Schull)
Schull: Nick (Hytner) was so nice. He was very gracious and kind. And I realize now, after being in the business longer, that's a luxury you don't always get. I knew the studio really wanted an actor, not a dancer, for Jody, but it made me feel like I belonged.
Stiefel: Nick had so much patience - he was working with a ton of actors for the first time. Every time we were shooting a difficult scene, he gave us great advice. We were playing characters, but at the same time, he wanted to bring out a lot of what was already in us as dancers - that specific posture, how you walk and move. And he's a pretty knowledgeable ballet fan.
Baiano: He was also very deferential to the expertise of the dancers in the room. There was a time when Ilia, who had never partnered with ballet before, had to do the partnership class scene, and Nick let us work with him a little bit. He gave us the space to do things like that to make it more authentic.
Radetsky: Nick would consult us about the dialogue and the little details, to make it real - "Would you really want to wear it? No? Then get rid of it." You can tell he's an artist himself by the respect he showed for the art form.
Baiano: It all worked because the people at the top clearly loved ballet and were leading a group of talented, hardworking artists. If you look at the people playing the students, there are all these dancers who are going to be directors in their companies in about five years. Janie Taylor (later director of NYCB), Rebecca Krohn (later director of NYCB), Gillian (Murphy, now director of ABT and wife of Stiefel), Stella - they are all there. Jonathan Stafford (now NYCB Artistic Director) and Jared Angle (now NYCB Director) are the understudies in this Cooper ballet rehearsal scene! To this day, Jared will joke that he has a bone to pick with Cooper-slash-Ethan, because Jared was Erik O.Jones's understudy, and really when Eric got hurt, that should have been Jared's big moment. We're all really connected. We're still friends.
Schull and Stiefel filming the dance finale (courtesy of Schull)
Working with famous or upcoming actors
Schull: The non-dancers were all adorable to me, and I certainly didn't deserve it, naive little squirt that I was. Zoe (Saldana, who plays Eva) had dance training - her arm carriage is beautiful, in fact - but she and Susan (May Pratt, who plays Maureen) had absolutely no ego to accept the suggestions of the cast dancers when they came in. to make the dance scenes more realistic. Everyone was invested in making it as real as possible, not a Hollywood interpretation of what ballet is.
Kent: Peter Gallagher had clearly done a lot of homework so that he could look like he knew what he was doing while conducting a ballet class - the manners, that very specific physics.
Stiefel: Peter was great to work with, because he is great at what he does, of course, but he was also very supportive and generous. I learned a lot from him, just by watching how he would do it, how he would read a scene, the questions he would ask, the art of it all.
Baiano: What I remember about Peter Gallagher is that he used to make me cigarettes all the time. Which made me feel really cool.Laughter.)
Schull on set with dancers (courtesy of Schull)
On the initial and ongoing impact of the film
Schull: I have done not expect the attention the film got from the start. It was really weird. We got carried away and I went back to the San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice - I wasn't living a glamorous, attention-seeking life. But I remember flying to visit my sister after the film premiered, getting really sick of the movement on the plane and seeing these teenage girls taking pictures of me throwing up. The guy sitting next to me said, "Are you some kind of rock star?" And I was like, "No...I'm the girl in that dance movie." (Laughter.)
Baiano: All my friends were in love with Sascha. They were like, "Do you know Charlie?" And I was like, "Oh, yeah, we go way back." (Laughter.) Sascha was in a Mandy Moore video! Everyone forgets that "I want to be with you" was a Center stage song.
Radetsky: I mean, there are clips of me playing on a screen while Mandy sings.
Baiano: No, it's more than that!
(Note from the editor: See for yourself.)
Stiefel: There was a real buzz in the dance world when the film came out, because it had been so long since a major studio had made a dance film. sleepless night was great, but a totally different flavor. And the diversity of the characters involved was also new.
Baiano: You can finally see a black gay character! He was approaching modern times. Although I do scold a bit today about how inappropriate Cooper's relationship with Jody was, not to mention the cornrows in the Cooper ballet, which are, uh, problematic. But there are many other things. It was part of that wave of great romantic comedies of that early 2000s era. All the Freddie Prinze Jr. stuff, and 10 things I hate about you-he felt the same way. To this day, this is still the case observable.
Radetsky: There is a perfect formula that he just hit.
Kent: You can spend your whole life as a performer, all over the world, and that's one thing. But to be preserved in time on film, a film that people still watch - that's special in a different way. I remember when 9/11 happened, about a year after the movie came out, ABT was on tour, I think in Kansas City. We had to fly across the country to San Diego, because all the flights were grounded. We were at a stop in Colorado somewhere and the waitress came over and said, "Oh, the people at the counter took care of your lunch. They recognize you from the movies."
Stiefel, Schull and Radetsky in the finale of "Cooper's Ballet" (courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Radetsky: I still get recognized sometimes. They will be the last people you expect - a TSA screener or a bagger at Whole Foods. The garbage man, once. Who knew he would be in ballet? The dance moms still recognize me a lot. Back then, it was younger dancers; now it's dance moms.
Stiefel: Right after the movie came out, it was funny - people were just yelling "Cooper!" at me from across the street. And I guess now younger kids know me from the other side. Center stage films, in which you can see Cooper aging somewhat. The last time we saw him, he was receiving a lifetime achievement award.
Radetsky: I was there to see you win this award, Center Stage: On Pointe!
Baiano: People are still talking about this movie, which is crazy. It was fun to see the Center stage tributes come out from time to time. The best one was on the 15th anniversary, I think, when Weekly entertainment made a story Why Center stage is the greatest dance film ever made. It is magic. It hits all the quirks of these early fashions and the fact that in the final dance scene, Amanda is a hair witch.
Stiefel: I always have a Center stage keychain somewhere. And a poster. And, I think, a sweatshirt?
Radetsky: Stella always wears this sweater for class.
Schull: When we were doing Center stageNobody thought of it as a stupid teenage dance movie, and you can see that. I think that's why people love it so much. Women always tell me that the reason they started ballet was because of the movie, or that they have a ritual where they watch it with their girlfriends, or that their dance school has dedicated movie nights.
Kent: It really shaped a whole generation of young dancers. I feel very lucky to have been a part of that.
Schull: It's also obvious from watching it that we had a lot of fun on that set. Now, having been in acting for over ten years, I can sense when people are pretending to be good friends for the camera. But we really took care of each other.
Stiefel: We need to do more reunions.
(From left to right) Stiefel, Radetsky and Erin Baiano at their mini Center stage reunion (photo by Joe Carrotta)