A Ballerina’s Tale, a documentary by Nelson George, brings viewers behind-the-scenes of classical ballerina Misty Copeland’s rise to fame. However, the film also positions Copeland’s career within a larger story about the history and culture of the classical ballet world, bringing to light industry biases and prejudices that Copeland is out to crush.
The film isn’t one that speaks to Copeland’s overall life or career (for instance, it leaves out much of the shaky childhood that is outlined in Copeland’s Life in Motion memoir, and omits completely her time as a background dancer for legendary performer Prince). Instead, it specifically looks at her enviable career with one of the most elite dance companies in the world, American Ballet Theatre (ABT). The viewer watches as she climbs through the ranks at ABT – from studio dancer and corps de ballet to soloist – striving toward the title of principal dancer, a seemingly impossible task. No African American female before her has been honored with the position.
Copeland’s accomplishments are framed in an examination of what came before her. The document serves largely as a mouthpiece for racial biases in the industry, focusing on the fascinating history of black women in dance, many of them featured in interviews throughout. These dancers paved the way for Copeland, but could only advance so far in their own careers due to societal and industry stereotypes. In some ways, the film is really a story of the lack of color in ballet, masqueraded as the story of Copeland’s rise to fame. Then again, the two stories are really one in the same.
Copeland’s story, without the biases of the industry on its shoulders, is still one of extraordinarily fierce resolve. Not only has she rightfully tackled racial stereotypes, which is no small feat– she was ridiculed for not having the ideal “ballet body” and she sustained (and overcame) a potentially career-ending injury as well:
In every grand plan, there is always a wrench. After her debut in The Firebird, a coup for a soloist dancer, Copeland sustained a knee injury. Would this be the end of her career, or would she persevere and make history? Anyone who follows her story (or watches television, reads the paper, goes online, or has a social media account) knows the answer already. A Ballerina’s Tale documents Copeland’s recovery from knee surgery, and her promotion to principal dancer at ABT, as a shining example of what is possible when talent, dedication and perseverance are combined.
At times, the documentary seems a bit one-note: the viewer is brought through the story without many moments of crisis, leaving a picture painted with relatively broad strokes. All topics are handled with grace, and a balanced representation of the facts, which present a story lacking in suspense and urgency. The viewer, however, does witness an intimate portrayal of Copeland’s day-to-day life interspliced with incredible performances; gets a sense of Copeland’s personality –friendly and sweet, but mindful and determined; and is left inspired.
In an industry that often values uniformity, Copeland provides anything but. Her Firebird performance filled the Metropolitan Opera House’s seats with an audience that was anxious to see her redefine industry standards and ideals. Not only has she already made history, but she is also changing, if slowly, the culture of the art.
A Ballerina’s Tale opens today in select theaters nationwide. To find a screening near you, visit: www.aballerinastale.com/see-the-film.