Something is afoot. And it is not the Presidential debates, a recovering economy or the latest salacious Kardashian tale of nudity, broken romance, or media overexposure. Some of the things may be important, but I am talking about something else.
The thing that is afoot is truth. And more and more documentaries are putting the truth, their truth, front and center. “A Ballerina’s Tale” is one such documentary about the truth, and more accurately Misty Copeland’s truth.
Socrates extolled, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And Nelson George’s truth-telling documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale,” examines the truth behind Misty Copeland’s rise to what some arts critics deem 21st Century breakout ballerina fame.
We’ve all heard the stories about Copeland’s rise from abject poverty to her ascension to become the first African American principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre. Most folks have seen the Misty Copeland segments on “60 Minutes,” “The View,” and countless other talk shows and media outlets, not mention her internet-breaking “Under Amour” video. A lot of people are aware that she’s toured with Prince, had photo editorials in Italian Vogue, and recently starred as “Miss Turnstiles” on Broadway in “On the Town.”
All these accomplishments are worth noting, and for a ballerina, almost unheard of, especially in this age of short sound bites and 15-minute fame celebs that disappear almost as soon as they’re discovered. Still, George’s documentary goes way beyond Misty Copeland’s cross-pollinated media proliferation.
“A Ballerina’s Tale” is primarily a story about all the hard work that goes into becoming a world-class ballerina, particularly if that ballerina is a dancer of color. “A Ballerina’s Tale” is also about all the folks, especially the women of color, that have supported Misty Copeland in her groundbreaking rise to ballet stardom.
In “A Ballerina’s Tale” Nelson George brilliantly displays the daily grind of a ballet dancer’s life. From endless rehearsals, to the grueling touring schedule, to costume fittings, to performances, and in Copeland’s case her injured tibia rehabilitation. (Nelson’s capture of Copeland’s comeback from injury performance of “The Dying Swan” was especially poignant.)
For those unfamiliar with the constant pace of a ballet dancer’s life, this documentary leaves no stone unturned and details truthfully that the short moments of glamour and on-stage accolades are the result of an unbelievable amount of grit and hard work. Add the pressure of being a dancer of color in the isolating world of classical ballet and the obstacles seem almost insurmountable.
Still, this pivotal work goes beyond a dancer’s struggle and hard work. Several documentaries have expertly detailed this road less traveled before. Where “A Ballerina’s Tale” shines and in many ways is unique is in its connecting tissue of a ballerina’s daily grind—in this case, Misty Copeland—and all the women of color who coalesced around her in support of her dream.
From Filmmaker and Author Susan Fales Hill (board member of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and American Ballet Theatre), and Author and Magazine Editor Harriet Cole, to ballerinas Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Victoria Rowell (ABT Studio Company), and Robin Gardenhire (ABT, Cleveland San Jose Ballet), to her manager Gilda Squire, Nelson George ingeniously demonstrates that it takes a village, and in this case some mentorship from accomplished and strong black women to assist Misty at a time in her career when she was floundering.
At the core of all the support and hard work is Misty Copeland who throughout the many setbacks and challenges is relentless in her quest and lights up the screen with her 40-watt smile. And, true to form, the dancing is revelatory. Isn’t all truth!!
“A Ballerina’s Tale” is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City. For more information go to, aballerinastale.com.
—William S. Gooch