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Center Stage: Turn It Up

by Lori Ortiz
January 24, 2009
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Producer: Laurence Mark, Director: Steven Jacobson, Choreographers: Odessa Munroe and Aakomon "AJ" Jones, Starring: Sarah Jayne Jensen, Rachele Brooke Smith, Kenny Wormald, Ethan Stiefel, Peter Gallagher.

DVD released January 20, 2009
itunes $14.99
The 1998 movie "Center Stage" is a well-loved dancers' classic. If its sequel "Center Stage: Turn It Up" hasn't yet caught on, is it because it pricks at some long-held mythology? It should be an eye-opener for the general public, but for dancers, some of the dialogue isn't easily digestible.

Tommy, played by Kenny Wormald, notes that Kate (Rachele Smith) is different from the ballet dancers he knows. "I don't puke after every meal and have a giant stick up my a-s," she answers. If this is the film's most unPC moment, can we call it tough love? The new film's unifying message couldn't be more useful: believe in yourself and in your dream.

"Turn It Up" has been compared to "Company," also panned at first. "Company" is based on the Joffrey and features the modern choreographer Lar Lubovitch, among others. The story of the dancers' difficult career path continues to inspire filmmakers. "Turn It Up" is a post-modern contemporary dance story and one that looks to the future of the form. It examines a relatively new phenomenon: dancers studio- hopping to learn different forms; cross-training and versatility are catchwords. Producer David Blackman, of "Dreamgirls" wanted to blend dance styles to create something new. This mirrors the thinking of contemporary choreographers, and "Turn It Up" affirms the persistence of ballet in our time.

Ethan Stiefel plays the teacher, and a kind of rehearsal director, Cooper Nielson, who comes across as very like the ABT star. The views expressed in the film appear to be Stiefel's, suggesting his investment in this story. He was in the public eye with a short-lived stint as AD of a West coast company. During several years of diminished performing because of a knee injury, he never faded from view. He was also present at the November preview screening of "Turn It Up." His role in this film appears natural for him and an extension of his own public persona. That includes his earlier incarnation as Cooper where, incidentally, according the Internet Movie Database, he said, "ABA has a great big stick up it's a-s."

Driven Detroit B-girl and ballet student Kate Perry's mother was a ballet dancer and that's how she learned. After her mother died, she watched tapes (Gillian Murphy's is plugged.) She goes to New York to audition for the fictional American Ballet Academy, a training institution on the caliber of School of American Ballet or the ABT's Onassis school. There she is up against Suzanne Von Stroh, who's dad is a major supporter of the struggling school and company.

The new film updates the role of women in the dance world, thankfully. Kate is a sexual young adult full of competence and drive, and a b-girl to boot! She's also human and angry at times. Cooper's not perfect either, it turns out, and when he shows his less-than-admirable side, in a scene outside the club, we stop swooning for a while along with Kate.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of "Turn It Up" for balletomanes, young and young-at-heart, is the way in which the classic fables are reference points in the plot. Von Stroh dances Odile, the black swan, having manipulated the unwitting Tommy to partner her at her father's formal do. Like "Romeo and Juliet," it's a story of a couple bridging two worlds. Finally, there's "The Glass Slipper," the only glimpse of contemporary ballet we get to see, with a post-modern twist. You'll find delightful role reversals in "Turn It Up," and its "Cinderella" yarn.

Among dansicals, the transition among forms, ballet and hip-hop, music, dance and pedestrian narrative, is exceptional. Compare it to the way the lead character suddenly breaks out in song in "Across the Universe," which is more like a traditional musical. Laura Karpman's excellent score for "Turn It Up" suggests the idea of musicality in live dance. Is the music driving the film or vice versa?

With two choreographers, the potential exists for superfine results. The ballet scenes, by Odessa Munroe, are classroom, and look it. My favorite, of course, is Stiefel's brilliant demonstration of Tommy's solo. Aside from this demo, we are watching students, and if you go expecting a cast with perfect ballet technique you'll be disappointed. Munroe does create convincing classroom and studio scenes. Von Stroh is the vixen and a sheltered, academic, ballet dancer. Jensen garnered the beginnings of a cult following for her role in "Hairspray." Wormald's background is primarily in music video and film. Individualist hip-hop choreography by Aakomon "AJ" Jones is a definite highlight.

Director Steve Jacobson makes his debut with "Turn It Up." He cites "Krumping" as one he's admired and "Turn It Up" shares some of that movie's high tech digital effects and editing. Yet Jacobson's feeling for the moving body is captured by the crew in long-shots and with the hand-held camera. Incredibly, our perception of it simulates the way we watch live movement.

"Turn It Up," which aired on OXYGEN November 1st, updates ballet for the general cable-TV-watching public. You know, the public that might be newly inspired to see a live contemporary ballet. The new video is a welcome addition to the cult of "Center Stage," to dance-on-camera, and to anyone interested in American dance forms. But it's also a moving story and a fabulous fable in the musical theater tradition. I turn my thumbs up.
Kenny Wormald and Sarah Jayne Jensen in Center Stage

Kenny Wormald and Sarah Jayne Jensen in Center Stage

Photo © & courtesy of Sony Pictures


Rachele Smith and Peter Gallagher in 'Center Stage'

Rachele Smith and Peter Gallagher in "Center Stage"

Photo © & courtesy of Sony Pictures


Sarah Jayne Jensen and Ethan Stiefel in 'Center Stage'

Sarah Jayne Jensen and Ethan Stiefel in "Center Stage"

Photo © & courtesy of Sony Pictures


Sarah Jayne Jensen

Sarah Jayne Jensen

Photo © & courtesy of Sony Pictures

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