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 poor footwork, 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 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 (played by Elizabeth Hubbard) 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.