Film Review: A Ballerina's Tale

A laudatory look at Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s first female African-American principal dancer, 'A Ballerina’s Tale' lacks critical objectivity and feels more like a PR exercise than the probing doc its remarkable subject deserves.
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A highly subjective, celebratory documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale congratulates Misty Copeland on her promotion this summer from soloist to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. The historic appointment marks the first time in the ballet company’s 75-year history that an African-American female dancer has risen to the rank of principal.

Filmmaker Nelson George (who directed, co-executive produced, contributed camerawork and appears onscreen as a gushing Copeland fan) bookends Copeland’s story with relevant historical context. We learn at the outset how “white” the ballet world is, and has been since the art form’s inception in the courts of Europe some 500 years ago. And the film closes with an “honor roll” of sorts, paying tribute, through quick biographical summaries, to the roster of accomplished African-American female dancers who enlivened ballet and modern-dance stages before and during Copeland’s lifetime.

But the nearsighted documentary fails to provide sufficient present-day, artistic context for its focal event. Though a host of high-powered African-American women from the arts, media and academe comment emotionally on what Copeland’s promotion means to them, we never hear ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie talk about why he promoted Copeland. What is it about her dancing that is so special? How does she stack up against her peers both at ABT and at other world-class ballet companies? The film fails to ask these, or any other, probing questions necessary to shed light on the real significance of Copeland’s accomplishment. We’re also left wondering how Copeland compares to other recently promoted ABT principals–such as Isabella Boylston, Hee Seo or Stella Abrera, who this summer became ABT’s first Filipino-American principal. And even more importantly, we wonder how Copeland compares to the ABT soloists McKenzie chose not to promote, such as Sarah Lane. Did race play a role in Copeland’s promotion, and why did McKenzie decide to promote her now?

Copeland has been a soloist at ABT since 2007, is already 33 years old and has a fierce publicity machine that, for quite a few years, has been grabbing every opportunity it can to advertise her and the importance of her promotion to the general public. It’s hard not to view George’s film as an extension of that campaign, particularly when the closing credits list both Copeland and her personal manager as executive producers.

Notably absent from the documentary are interviews with any of Copeland’s fellow dancers at ABT or with any prominent dance critics, who have been writing about Copeland, not always glowingly, for many years. Their perspectives would have added immeasurably to our understanding of Copeland’s promotion and of the dancer herself, as the film is also suspiciously short on biographical background. We don’t hear from any of Copeland’s family members, nor learn anything about her difficult childhood and unusual upbringing as a teenage ballet prodigy. (Details of that fascinating story can be found in Copeland’s 2014 autobiography, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.)

In order to turn his fluffy, cinematic homage to Copeland’s achievement into a documentary worthy of its remarkable subject, George needed to have employed a more objective, critical lens and a stronger investigative, educational or even aesthetic mission. To properly appreciate a ballerina, we need to see her in action. Most of the footage of Copeland shows her walking mundanely around the city, or standing in a dance studio exhibiting silly mannerisms and making banal remarks. The only extended dance sequence is of choreography that, though well-interpreted, does not show off Copeland’s technical strengths. It is only in the few exhilarating seconds excerpted from an Under Armour commercial—in which Copeland leaps with spectacular athletic prowess and beauty—that we begin to see her as an extraordinary ballerina.

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