Center Stage had all the elements to be a smash hit: the behind-the-scenes drama of a prestigious ballet company, amazing choreography, incredibly catchy music, and a gorgeous cast of unknown lead actors (some of whom have gone on to have huge careers, like Zoe Saldana, and others who have sadly suffered a more common Hollywood fate, like Susan May Pratt).
But when Nicholas Hytner’s dance drama came out in May 2000, it made an underwhelming $17 million and critics said the film “recycles rather than reinvents” and “steamrolls through its expository scenes with more efficiency than grace.”
That should have been the end of Center Stage. It should have gathered dust on video shelves and been skipped over during the odd cable airing.
But that’s not at all what happened. Thanks to those video shelves and cable airings, Center Stage endured, attracting new viewers over the years and becoming an object of obsession for those who fell in love with it during its theatrical run.
It’s a turn of events that Sascha Radetsky, who played Charlie — one of two dancers (along with Ethan Stiefel’s Cooper Nielson) vying for the affections of ballerina Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) — has finally wrapped his head around.
“That movie somehow has legs,” he told BuzzFeed News with a chuckle at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills. “It was firing on a bunch of cylinders. … It was well-crafted; it had the right amount of dance, where those in the ballet world were placated while still conveying its beauty and power; it wasn't too long; it has a great soundtrack; it's well-shot, well-edited; has a great cast with Zoe and Amanda; Ethan's rocking; Peter Gallagher's the best. It's become this cult classic, which is great. I'm so grateful to have been involved in it.”
Radetsky, who fell in love with and began studying ballet around his fifth birthday, was one of the film’s classically trained dancers. His education included time at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow, the Kirov Academy of Ballet, the School of American Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre’s School of Classical Ballet, and the San Francisco Ballet School. He then joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1995, a company he performed with for nearly two decades.
“Initially what appealed to my 5-year-old self was the athleticism and the power in the music,” Radetsky said. “It was so rousing. It's really this incredible challenge: It's athletic, there's storytelling elements, there's a connection with the partner, there's the music, there's the adrenaline blitz of a live performance, but then it's also the pursuit of perfection. It's something you're always pushing for and pushing for. Dance is an interesting symphony of different art forms.”
And acting always felt like a natural extension of dancing for Radetsky. But while there was no real downside to starring in Center Stage (aside from the expected ribbing from his dancer friends), it also didn’t lead to more movie offers. So Radetsky returned, full-time, to dancing. “I just assumed acting was in my past,” he said. “I thought Center Stage was my final statement on the matter. I just buckled down and focused on dancing exclusively.”
But more than a decade later, in July 2014, the then-37-year-old faced a decision every dancer will confront too early in their lives: retirement. “It is so weird,” Radetsky said of retiring from the American Ballet Theatre, where he spent the majority of his career. “You feel unmoored. It can be really disorienting figuring out what the next step is. At the same time, it’s liberating. I don’t have to put on a dance belt anymore and … I put on a few,” he added, patting his flat stomach.
But Radetsky didn’t have to look for too long before finding that next step — starting Nov. 8, viewers can see his next act with the premiere of Starz’s Flesh and Bone, a gritty drama that depicts the world of ballet like audiences have never seen before.
Radetsky plays Ross, a womanizing dancer with a history of addiction, who’s much farther from Radetsky’s own experience than Charlie was in Center Stage. “They're both fictional characters but Ross is more of a departure for me,” he said. “I think deep down, he's a nice guy, but he has some demons. Ross wants what he wants, and really, the things in his life are dance, women, and he has a bit of a past with substance abuse. He struggles with all of them.”
No matter what kind of guy Ross is, Radetsky is happy to be the rare male ballet dancer in pop culture and to potentially change minds about what that means. “There's a persistent stereotype about male dancers that somehow, it's not an honorable path to pursue or that we're weak,” he said. “It's a really complex issue [that’s] wrapped up in homophobia and there's all sorts of elements to it. The irony is that because male dancers struggle and are looked down upon by a large segment of society, especially as kids, it actually breeds a much tougher individual. It's actually the exact opposite of the stereotype. In order to push through all that ignorance, you have to develop a thick skin, and a lot of my colleagues have stories about being bullied or getting in fights and it made them more independent, stronger, and smarter individuals.”
Flesh and Bone certainly shows that tough side of the ballet world. The eight-episode series was created by Moira Walley-Beckett, who was coming off four seasons on Breaking Bad and an Emmy win for writing the 2013 episode “Ozymandias” when Radetsky signed on.
“It doesn’t reflect my personal experience with dance, but there are certainly aspects of truth in the dark elements for sure,” he said of the show. “The ballet world is so deep and so broad and so complex that it would take 50 series to capture every element. This is Moira's take on it and she takes a lot of risks with it. I think you have to bear in mind, it's fiction and it's a drama and all the many, many wonderful aspects of ballet probably wouldn't make for the most entertaining television. It would be hours of stretching and telling people, ‘Hey, great job.’”
And in Radetsky’s opinion, Flesh and Bone couldn’t come at a more opportune time. While shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars have done immeasurable good for the public profile of dance, the ballet world hasn’t benefitted as much from that as other styles — like hip hop and contemporary — have.
“We need ballet dancers,” Radetsky said, the passion palpable in his voice. “We have to engage a new generation to be interested in dance. As dancers, what we do only lasts in memory after the curtain falls, so this was an opportunity to indelibly document what we really do as dancers, [and] we need people to see the virtues in ballet.”