The world of classical ballet changes slowly: Not until 2015 did the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) promote an African-American woman to principal dancer. Misty Copeland’s story is rife with miseries familiar to most ballet professionals — broken bones and chronic pain from high-impact, en pointe twirling — as well as hardships known only to those whose skin color has long been considered by the companies as a “distraction” to audiences. In A Ballerina’s Tale, director Nelson George paints a moving portrait of Copeland that underscores her triumphs over bodily and historical limitations.
Onscreen, Copeland is captivating. We witness the strength of her body and spirit as a surgeon, palpating a swollen yet razor-sharp calf, tells her that her pain is due to several severe fractures. With screws in her bones, Copeland dances through it just a few months later in preparation for her return to the ABT.
The film is structured around mid-career highlights — Copeland’s solo performance in The Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera House, her career-defining role as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake — but it reminds us that her rise to stardom was marked by self-doubt and a need for mentorship. Cameras follow Copeland to the home of Raven Wilkinson, one of America’s first black female ballerinas. Holding hands, they playact a dance from Swan Lake — Wilkinson still strong on her feet — and marvel at how little the dance and the dance world have changed.
Together they symbolize the thin but beautiful lineage of black American dancers, and Wilkinson seems to recognize the poignancy of the moment. Gripping Copeland’s hands even tighter, she trembles with pride and worry for the younger dancer’s future, offering this cryptic warning into the camera: “Hold tight, because you don’t want to lose the swan in the lake.” Amy Brady
A Ballerina’s Tale
Directed by Nelson George
Opens October 14, IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center