Misty Copeland, the artist who last summer became the first African American woman appointed a principal dancer for New York’s American Ballet Theatre, now has a movie out about her: “A Ballerina’s Tale.”
The documentary isn’t just about Misty Copeland, though, because that’s the way she wanted it.
“It was important that it not be a Misty film,” Copeland, 33, said. “The story of my life has been told over and over again. I wanted this to be me giving ballet a platform to be seen by the broader world as well as educating people on all African American women that have come before me and how difficult it really is over generations and generations to get to this level in classical ballet as a black woman. To me, that was the most important story that I thought should be told.”
So, indeed, the documentary, directed and shot by Copeland’s friend and veteran New York writer-producer-director Nelson George, looks into the history of black women in the world’s major ballet companies.
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It also, however, captures a particularly dramatic stretch of Copeland’s life. After recapping the well-known story of how the girl from a financially challenged background started ballet at the ripe old age of 13 and steadily defied racial and body-type perceptions to become not just a superstar but a cultural phenomenon, George shot the period in 2012 and ’13 when, following her triumphant “Firebird” performance, the dancer underwent experimental surgery to repair potentially career-ending fractures in her left tibia.
“I met Misty in spring of 2012 and saw ‘Firebird,’ found out she was injured and kept in contact with her and her manager,” George said. “Toward the end of the year, I felt if she was really going to make this comeback happen, I’d love to document that. I knew there must be a great story about a great artist/athlete coming from the heights of ‘Firebird’ at the (Metropolitan Opera House in New York) to almost not being able to dance again, not knowing what the ending would be. So I just took a chance, and she took a chance on me.”
Knowing Copeland would be in a delicate place as she painfully retrained, George acted as his own one-man camera crew, starting at the Broadway dance studio Steps.
“It was one of her first classes actually getting back up on her feet,” George observes. “She couldn’t really do a lot, and you could feel her frustration. So the beginning of the film, for us, was truly at a very low point.”
“It’s hard to watch some of that footage,” Copeland confirms. “There were days when I was taking classes at Steps and I’d just sit off to the side with tears in my eyes — but not allow myself to truly believe it was over. It was an extremely difficult time.”
Despite that, Copeland felt totally comfortable having a guy with a camera following her around. Even if this time it was in some more private situations than she was accustomed to, she was more than used to having eyes on her.
Copeland also says it’s not difficult for her to be both a dedicated artist in a demanding, competitive field and the role model she has inevitably become.
“No, not at all,” she points out. “Of course, there have been a lot of firsts in many situations, and I don’t know that all of those people would feel that they necessarily wanted to talk about race, but that’s not my experience. It has been an extremely difficult road, and the color of my skin has had so much to do with it. To ignore that or push it aside just because I’ve reached this level is not something that I would or could ever do.”
George feels that “A Ballerina’s Tale” may turn out to only be a small part of Copeland’s overall story.
“I think the legacy of Misty in this particular world will really be felt over five to 10 years,” George said. “It’s gonna be the eight or 11-year-old girl who is really a good dancer but might not have considered classical ballet but would have done jazz or modern or went in another direction because there were no role models who looked like her.
“If we look up in 10 years and there are two or three women (of color) at American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet or at San Francisco, that’s when you’re going to know that she’s had an impact,” he said.