After a series of country-wide auditions, twelve young dancers gain entry to the American Ballet Academy (which is loosely based on the School of American Ballet). They work hard, attending classes every day for weeks to make them the best dancers they can possibly be, and in preparations for a final dance workshop which will determine the three boys and three girls who will be asked to join the American Ballet Company (which appears to be based on either the American Ballet Theatre or the New York City Ballet). The workshop will also provide an opportunity for the students to showcase their talent to other ballet companies across the country. Gaining a leading part in the workshop is therefore essential.
Tensions mount between Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), the company's aging choreographer and director, and Cooper Nielson (Ethan Stiefel), his best dancer, who also wants to choreograph. They also have issues because Kathleen Donahue (Julie Kent), Cooper's ex-girlfriend and fellow dancer, left him to wed Jonathan. Star student Maureen (Susan May Pratt), a closet bulimic who seems poised for success, discovers that life is passing her by when she meets a pre-med student (Eion Bailey) who shows her the merits of a life without ballet, to the dismay of her controlling stage mother (Debra Monk), herself a failed ballet dancer and current ABC employee. Sweet Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull), despite underdeveloped turn out, body type issues, and bad feet, is determined to dance professionally, but it appears less and less likely as the movie progresses that she will be good enough. Jody's parents, Jonathan, Maureen, and cold hearted ballet teacher Juliette Simone (Donna Murphy) try to convince Jody to move on from dance and attend college. Jody refuses to give up on her dream of being in a professional ballet company. Talented but smart aleck Eva Rodriguez (Zoe Saldana; doubled by SAB alumna and former NYCB member Aesha Ash) from Boston loves to dance but seems destined to be stuck in the back of the corps because of her bad attitude. Tensions also arise between Charlie (Sascha Radetsky), a naturally gifted fellow advanced student from Seattle, and Cooper over Jody; Charlie has a crush on Jody, who had a one-night stand with Cooper and remains infatuated with him.
Despite Jonathan's objections, Cooper choreographs a rock/pop music-based ballet for the workshop. Three ballets are presented; Jonathan and another choreographer create the other two respectively—the two more "traditional" ballets are not danced to actual ballet music, however. The first (not shown, beyond entrances of the corps and soloist from the wings) is to Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, while Jonathan's ballet (choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon) is set to Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto. Cooper's ballet (choreographed by Susan Stroman) mirrors the relationship between himself, Jonathan, and Kathleen. Jody, Charlie, and their gay friend Erik (Shakiem Evans) are set to dance the three lead roles when Erik sprains his ankle in a final rehearsal. To Jonathan's protests and Jody's apprehension, Cooper steps in to fill the role, and the tensions between Jody, Charlie, and Cooper play out on the stage.
After the final workshop, Cooper starts his own dance company, much to Jonathan's chagrin, as Cooper's financial backer is a wealthy widow who Jonathan was hoping would donate to American Ballet Company. Cooper asks Jody to be a principal dancer, as her dancing style, though technically deficient, is perfect for his company. He also asks to date her, but Jody turns him down in favor of Charlie. Maureen decides to give up ballet because she finally realizes that ballet is just something she does well and not what she wants in life. She decides to attend regular university and also seek help for her eating disorder. Eva is picked by Jonathan to join ABC after proving her worth in the workshop, surprising everyone by dancing in place of Maureen as the lead in Jonathan's ballet. Charlie, and fellow advanced students and friends Anna (who was always favored by Jonathan and who danced "Gelsey Kirkland's part" as the lead in the Italian Symphony ballet; played by SAB alumna and former NYCB corps member Megan Pepin) and Erik are also asked to join the American Ballet Company, and Sergei (Ilia Kulik), Charlie and Erik's roommate and friend, joins his girlfriend Galina in the San Francisco Ballet Company.
There is a subplot in which Cooper attracts the financial support of a flirtatious wealthy female philanthropist (played by Elizabeth Hubbard). An August 15, 2004 New York Times article entitled "How Much Is That Dancer in the Program?" revealed that Stiefel has a very similar real-life sponsorship relationship with a philanthropist named Anka Palitz.Amanda Schull as Jody Sawyer
Zoë Saldana as Evanna "Eva" Rodríguez
Susan May Pratt as Maureen Cummings
Peter Gallagher as Jonathan Reeves
Debra Monk as Nancy Cummings
Ethan Stiefel as Cooper Nielson
Sascha Radetsky as Charles "Charlie" Sims
Donna Murphy as Juliette Simone
Julie Kent as Kathleen Donahue
Ilia Kulik as Sergei
Eion Bailey as James "Jim" Gordon
Shakiem Evans as Erik "O. Jones" Jones
Elizabeth Hubbard as Joan Miller
Cody Green as Nicholas "Nick" Hoffman
Mauricio Sanchez as Dancer at Salsa Club
Julius Catalvas as Instructor
Priscilla Lopez as Broadway Dance Teacher
Of the main characters who are dancers, four are professional ballet dancers (Amanda Schull, Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky, and Julie Kent), one is a professional figure skater (Ilia Kulik), one had ballet training (Zoe Saldana), and two were actors with no ballet training (Susan May Pratt and Shakiem Evans). Body doubles were used for many of the major dance sequences, and students from the School of American Ballet (including now-retired NYCB principal dancer Janie Taylor and current principal Jared Angle) filled the classrooms of ABA and corps in the workshop ballets.
Center Stage received moderate to negative reviews.
The New York Times critic A. O. Scott wrote for the film:
Contactmusic.com gave the film just two stars, commenting that:
The film currently holds a 43% "Rotten" score, on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film opened at #6 at the box office making $4,604,621 USD in its opening weekend. The film has grossed a total of $26,385,941 worldwide.
- "I Wanna Be with You" – Mandy Moore
- "First Kiss" – i5
- "Don't Get Lost in the Crowd" – Ashley Ballard
- "We're Dancing" – P.Y.T.
- "Friends Forever" – Thunderbugs
- "Get Used to This" – Cyrena
- "A Girl Can Dream" – P.Y.T.
- "Cosmic Girl" – Jamiroquai
- "Higher Ground" – Red Hot Chili Peppers
- "Come Baby Come" – Elvis Crespo & Gizelle D'Cole
- "The Way You Make Me Feel" – Michael Jackson
- "If I Was the One" – Ruff Endz
- "Canned Heat" – Jamiroquai
- "I Wanna Be with You" (Soul Soul Solution Remix) – Mandy Moore
Center Stage: Turn It Up is a sequel starring Rachele Brooke Smith. It was first released in cinemas in Australia on October 30, 2008, and debuted in the United States on November 1, 2008 on the Oxygen channel.
Another sequel film, Center Stage: On Pointe, premiered on Lifetime on June 25, 2016. The film stars former Dance Moms star Chloe Lukasiak and features alumni from the first two films mentoring a younger generation of dancers.