Misty Copeland: A Ballerina's Tale
Directed by Nelson George
Reviewed by Leah Maclean
In 2015 Misty Copeland made history by being appointed the first African-American principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. A Ballerina’s Tale – directed by Nelson George and Copeland, (an executive producer herself) is a feature length documentary which examines the ballerina’s prodigious rise alongside injury, issues of race and body image in the elite ballet world.
Following popular documentary tropes, A Ballerina’s Tale opens with footage of a young Copeland dancing in the studio; though this is about as much of an intimate look into Copeland’s background we get. What this archival footage achieves is showing that Copeland demonstrated promise in the art form from an early age; one does not need to be a ballet aficionado to recognise her abundant talent.
Copeland started ballet at 13 years of age, which is much later in life than most; however by 15 she was one of the top ballet prospects in California and at 17 she moved to New York to be a part of American Ballet Theatre’s studio company. She describes the harrowing moment when she is told to lose weight and the period of time where her relationship with food suffered. Deirdre Kelly, journalist and author of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, briefly touches on the idea and history of disordered eating in ballet, but brief is the operative word. This is a little disappointing as the film almost seems to skirt around the body image issue; but alas it is Copeland’s story and no doubt audiences tune in to hear just that and not a history of disordered eating in the ballet. Nevertheless, perhaps a rewrite of the plot synopsis is in order.
So many aspects of the film felt hurried, and the use of archival and present-day dance footage, though fascinating and important it felt too much like a place holder – especially when excerpts went for longer than necessary. Despite my gripes with the film there were stand out moments; her interactions with former African-American ballerinas like Raven Wilkinson and Robyn Gardenhire. The comradery and respect was insurmountable – particularly with Wilkinson who was very much like a grandmother figure to Copeland. Watching them share and re-enact roles they had performed was a very sweet moment. Among those candid moments was Copeland’s little street celebration with friends on the unveiling of her billboard campaign for sports attire company Under Armour. I would have desired more of these personal connections. The most engaging aspect of the documentary was watching Copeland’s journey back from a potentially career ending injury. The ballerina had been performing with a shattered shin, leaving her in total agony and fearing for her career. It was a long and heart-breaking journey back following surgery and rehabilitation. The documentary managed to capture the dancer’s resilience, focus and determination.
Overall the film was an easy watch with some beautiful moments, however there could have been so much more to the story; more interactions with Misty’s peers, a more illuminating history in body image and race in the ballet. Others have said that the documentary reads more as public-relations exercise and I tend to agree, it lacked personality and the personal. But regardless Misty Copeland is stunning, empowering and an excellent role-model for women and girls around the world.