Few dancers make it to the highest levels of classical ballet. Of that already small number only a fraction of them are black women. Misty Copeland, from the small California city of San Pedro, has pulled herself up the ladder at American Ballet Theater (ABT) from the studio company to the corps de ballet to soloist. The only rung in the ladder left to climb is principal dancer aka prima ballerina.
In 2013, after more than a decade at American Ballet Theatre Misty was offered the lead role in Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird to be performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, a major coup for a soloist.
The night of her performance Misty danced beautifully. But at the celebration afterwards she revealed she had been performing in great pain. Later Misty found out that she had six fractures in her left shin. Without corrective surgery the shin might one day break. Many doubted she would dance again.
A Ballerina’s Tale is then an intimate look at this artist during a crucial period of her life. The bulk of the film is a cinema verité influenced look at Misty’s journey, from the triumph of Firebird, the painful road back to dancing and to an unexpected third act where Misty not only returns to the American Ballet Theatre stage but emerges as a pop star in the process.
Misty Copeland’s career shines a light on several challenges within the world of classical ballet: the absence of women of color at major companies despite so many gifted black women ready to make the leap; the emphasis on skinny bodies for ballerinas impacts the health of professional dancers and sends a negative message to young fans around the world. Misty, because of her race and her curves, is central to both issues in the classical dance world.
The film climaxes with a landmark performance by Misty in Swan Lake, which is an acknowledgement by American Ballet Theatre that she is back, dancing at the highest level, and the fulfillment of the dream of many to see a true black swan at a mainstream international company. A Ballerina’s Tale is the story of how a great talent and a powerful will combined can open doors within a very cloistered world.
I watched Natalie Portman’s ‘The Black Swan’ years ago and I remember having to walk off that film due to its psychological intensity. Ballet is a beautiful art but full of deep sacrifice. It was emotional, upsetting and demonstrated a different side of the art that perhaps the general public are not used to observing. Even though it was a drama – ‘The Black Swan’ did a tremendous job in opening the door to ballet’s shrouded world.
Nelson George’s ‘‘A Ballerina’s Tale’ takes us a step further. It demonstrates a different kind of snapshot into the ballet life of Misty Copeland. It immediately takes us by the hand and shows us Misty’s back story, her career dedication, sacrifice, determination, emotional and physical pain in a career and art that has a deep history of restriction in all its various shapes and forms.
With unprecedented access to a ballerina’s dance psyche – A Ballerina’s Tale’ shows us Copeland’s move to New York, her bouts with loneliness, being tasked to lose weight in areas that perhaps Caucasian ballerinas don’t struggle in and date nights with Krispy Kreme donuts. It is a vulnerable documentary but also riddled with endearing moments of humour.
George’s portrait of Copeland doesn’t harp on being stifled of her career goals because of her race. Copeland is optimistic, driven but also realistic in her goal setting. She continues to work on her emotional and physical health when last minute hurdles spring up in moments of success. We also see Copeland reaping the benefits of her work through the age of product sponsorship and social media campaigns. Copeland selectively uses her cultural background to an advantage when her career starts to boom.
‘A Ballerina’s Tale’ is inspiring and does a wonderful job in seeing Copeland in her early years to present. Copeland in her gentle, calm and relaxed voice is the ambassador leading to usher in the next generation of ballet dancers of colour.