A BALLERINA’S TALE (2O15) review
produced by: Leslie Norville and Nelson George
directed by: Nelson George
U.S. release date: October 14, 2015 (limited), January 2-7, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL), Amazon and iTunes
I had heard about “A Ballerina’s Tale” months ago, but I knew very little about the film except it was about a ballerina. I know I know, my deduction skills are astounding. It wasn’t until I saw 33 year-old Misty Copeland as a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live that I realized she was the subject of this fascinating documentary. It became clear why a film was made about her while watching – besides being a charming and lively guest on a late night show – I learned she happens to be the first African-American ballet dancer to be promoted to principal dancer at New York’s prestigious American Ballet Theatre. In a sea of white, flat-chested pre-pubescent skinny girls, Copeland, with her muscular figure and full chest, stands out on stage and is indeed set apart. Up until 2015, there had never been a black female principal dancer at a major international dance company, but Misty Copeland changed that.
Director Nelson George’s “A Ballerina Tale” tells the story of how this prodigy rose from starting ballet at the late age of thirteen in San Pedro, California, to be cast as The Firebird, the principal role in Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) choreographed by ballet innovator Alexei Ratmansky and drawing an unusually diverse audience at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2012. George’s documentary follows her onstage and off, providing video snippets of Copeland rehearsing in her teens and talking head clips of those who have impacted, mentored and overseen the young woman’s impressive career track.
You’d think a black ballet dancer wouldn’t be such a rare and unique thing in 2015. But, as Diedre Kelly – former dancer and author of Ballerina – who had been writing about ‘the color of ballet’ since the late 80s – not much has changed unfortunately. Kelly recounts how the notion of a skinny ballerina is a modern phenomenon that dates back to 1963, when Russian-born ballet choreographer, George Balanchine (considered the father of American ballet) started creating the ballet and the ballerina according to an ideal vision he had of a dancer – aka, skinny and white.
That’s where we get the emaciated body types dancing on the stage, who no longer look like women, but on the stage, but young girls who are encouraged not to eat to the point of not being able to menstruate, often resulting in their death.
The film states that such profiling goes back even further though. When ballet emerged in the Renaissance culture of Italy in the late 15th century and on into the reign of King Louis XIV in France during the 17th century, many companies believed that dancers of color (that’s any color that’s not pale white) or muscular body types would distract the audience. I know, it’s crazy just thinking of it. In fact, I would imagine such a figure would be a welcome distraction for the audience.
The fact remains that of the one percent of ballerinas that make it into elite companies each year, an even smaller fraction of them are black women. That’s part of why Copeland’s rise and success is a big deal. She’s extremely talented, for sure, but the impact she has made on the black community cannot be ignored.
One of the prominent figures in Copeland’s career has been former-chair at ABT board, Susan Fales-Hill, who, in an unprecedented move, was asked to mentor Copeland when she came to ABT at age seventeen. It was during this time Copeland met her first roommate Leyla Fayyaz (a former ABT dancer) and they became best friends. Like Kelly, Fales-Hill is present throughout the documentary and recounts what Copeland was going through as she started and continued to face challenges. She mentioned how former artistic director/dancer at ABT, Kevin McKenzie saw from the beginning that Copeland had talent to go the distance and go all the way. Fales-Hill states that Copeland had “what you can’t teach – stage presence and fire”.
But there was a responsibility in being the only black ballerina at ABT that weighed Copeland down and she began feeling isolated and lonely, despite the support around her. Here is where the film delves into Copeland the person, instead of the phenomenon. Copeland admits to becoming depressed and shamed and bingeing on a dozen Krispy Kremes in one sitting.
Executive director at ABT, Rachel Moor, knew Copeland had all this promise, but she could tell she lacked focus and saw that Copeland’s behavior began to get in the way of her success. Fales-Hill introduced Copeland to other successful black women in various fields to offer encouragement and inspiration, knowing that she needed other black women to look up to.
This section of the film informs the audience more about what Copeland was going through emotionally and psychologically, but it would’ve helped if we knew even more – especially about Copeland’s past. “A Ballerina’s Tale” briefly touches on how Copeland felt a connection to ballet immediately at age thirteen, but skips over the emancipation and restraining orders from her mother that she filed in 1998. Apparently, this received a good deal of media coverage, but there’s not a peep of it here. Maybe that’s not a part of her ballerina tale, but it certainly reveals more about the film’s subject.
Like so many dancers or athletes that put their bodies through the ringer, Copeland had to deal with an injury in 2012 that almost ended her career. Six tiny fractures were discovered along her left tibia, a week before her first principal role in The Firebird. Copeland wound up withdrawing from ABT for the entire season, taking seven months to recovery after her surgery. George spends a good portion of the second half of “A Ballerina’s Tale” following Copeland to doctor’s visits, therapy and then slowly making her way back onto the stage.
“A Ballerina’s Tale” may seem familiar to viewers as another journey of a talented individual who overcome obstacles and fears, but there is undoubtedly a specific demographic of young girls who should see this film and be inspired to dream.