It's incredibly difficult for any young ballerina to earn a spot in a prestigious ballet company, but it's even more difficult for young women of color. In most other athletic fields, talent is the only thing that really matters: every team wants to win, and no matter what prejudices coaches or members of team management might have, they're going give the top spots to people who can help them win. When it comes to ballet – which is as demanding as any sport, but which is also an art form – there are aesthetic concerns to deal with as well. Historically, the most distinguished ballet companies have preferred the uniformity of a full company of white women; worrying that different skin tones will ultimately prove a distraction. Even on the rare occasions when minorities have landed one of those coveted spots, principal roles are hard to come by, as directors hesitate to alter roles that have traditionally been played by white leads. Jackie Robinson might have broken baseball's color barrier in 1947, but it wasn't until 2015 that Misty Copeland become the first African-American woman to be named the principal dancer at a major international company.
Copeland's life story is covered in A Ballerina's Tale, a simply-constructed but generally absorbing documentary directed by Nelson George. The film features interviews with a host of Copeland's friends, associates and family members, but the doc is at its best when Copeland herself is at its center: she's a radiant presence, and someone who isn't shy about acknowledging the importance of what she's achieved. She knows the enormity of what she has accomplished, and is well aware of the impact that her prominent presence in the ballet world has on young girls who look like her. She says that many people in her life feels she focuses too much on her identity as an African-American ballerina, but she has no interest in trying to shy away from who she is: this accomplishment means something, and the world needs to know that.
It's astonishing to consider just how quickly Copeland established herself as a star. She didn't start dancing until she was 13 (young, but awfully old by ballet standards), and she was winning awards by the time she was 15. With each passing year, it became increasingly clear that she was well on her way to becoming one of the superstars of the ballet world... if she could manage to avoid self-destruction, at least. As the pressure to achieve greatness grew, people told Copeland that she needed to lose weight (she was already thin), that she was too curvy (the most successful ballerinas tended to be flat-chested) and that she was too muscular. None of these things impacted her ability to perform in any way, but people clung to their small-minded ideas of what a ballerina was supposed to look like. How frustrating it must be to have all of that talent and to be dismissed for something as insignificant as physical appearance.
A Ballerina's Tale documents Misty's assorted ups and downs – promotions, setbacks, injuries, recoveries, increasing fame – in straightforward chronological fashion, with occasional bits of text serving as a substitute for a narrator. While it might have been easy to turn the movie into the ballet equivalent of a concert film (using her remarkable performances to draw people in), George is more interested in telling Misty's story than in offering a showcase for her abilities. While there are moments when you wish the film would dig a little deeper – it has a tendency to hit on compelling ideas and then quickly move on to the next thing – it's never dull, and its best moments offer genuine beauty.
The most memorable sequence in the film arrives late in the proceedings, as Misty has the opportunity to meet Raven Wilkinson, an elderly African-American woman who was a prominent ballerina in the 1950s. They talk about the challenges of being a minority in the world of ballet and share intimate anecdotes that very few others would be able to appreciate so deeply. Eventually, they decide to compare the dance steps they were taught for performing Stravinsky's “The Firebird.” To their mutual delight, they discover that the choreography they each learned is basically the same. Some things never change. Fortunately, some things do.
A Ballerina's Tale
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Year: 2015