May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

Amanda Schull, Zoë” Saldana, Susan May Pratt, Ethan Stiefel, Sascha Radetsky, Peter Gallagher

As high as the dancers in Center Stage leap, it takes an even mightier jump to buy into this hackneyed backstage drama about a trio of baby ballerinas competing to rise en pointe in New York City. Then again, teenage moviegoers who have not seen the movie’s many celluloid forebears, including Flashdance, Fame, A Chorus Line, The Turning Point, Marjorie Morningstar, The Red Shoes and 42nd Street, may just go for its clichéd characters and plot. Such are the advantages of youth.

Stage’s central teen trio consists of a sweet, gullible blonde (Schull) from Indiana; a streetwise Latina (Saldana) with a bad attitude but toe shoes full of talent; and a snooty Manhattanite (Pratt) saddled with a pushy stage mother and covert bulimia. They all suffer mightily for their art, as will most viewers.

Of the three, Pratt, a jangly bundle of nerves, is the superior actress. The best dancer is none of the above but rather the gravity-defying Stiefel, who swaggers through the movie as a bad-boy dancer-choreographer and is in real life a lead dancer with American Ballet Theatre. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Tutu predictable

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