‘A Ballerina’s Tale’: Film Review

Nelson George’s documentary recounts the life and career of Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer in the history of the American Ballet Theatre.

“Dreams do come true,” an onscreen graphic breathlessly reminds us at the end of Nelson George‘s documentary about ballerina Misty Copeland. The Disney-esque adage is unfortunately all too typical of A Ballerina’s Tale, which, other than adding to the pop culture barrage that has accompanied this gifted dancer’s rise to stardom, does little to provide insight into her unique story.

George began filming his subject shortly after she suffered a potentially devastating injury but before she was named the first African-American principal dancer in the history of the venerable American Ballet Theatre. So while he certainly was riding her career wave, the timing became more fortunate than he could have anticipated.

The Bottom Line

This frustratingly shallow portrait doesn’t provide much that we didn’t already know.

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Home movies of Copeland dancing in her living room as a child illustrate her early talent, but the film doesn’t delve into her background beyond informing us that she was one of six children. She won a teenage dance competition (footage of that is featured as well) before moving to New York City at age 17 to join ABT’s Studio Company. She later joined the main company on a tour throughout China, with her career ascendancy continuing apace.

Various commentators from the dance world talk about the difficulties faced by dancers of color, with one citing a New York Times story lambasting ABT and other major companies for their lack of black ballerinas. Not long after the article appeared, Copeland danced the starring role in The Firebird to critical acclaim. This was followed by her history-making starring turn as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

It’s revealed that she was in great pain while performing in Firebird, due to a possibly career-ending injury that resulted in several surgeries. The scenes of her dealing with various doctors and physical therapists are the dramatic highlights of the film, although young dancers probably will be even more fascinated by the revelation that a depressed Copeland took solace in consuming entire boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts.

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One of the more touching segments features Copeland discussing her career travails with Raven Wilkinson, a black ballerina who preceded her in the professional-dance world (Ballet Russe, Dutch National Ballet) by several decades. The bonding between these two generations of barrier-breaking performers provides a rich emotional context to this cinematic portrait that otherwise has little more impact than a television-newsmagazine puff piece.

Production: Urban Romances
Director: Nelson George
Producer: Leslie Norville
Executive producers: Dorria L. Ball, Ingrid Graham, Nelson George, Leslie Norville, Misty Copeland, Gilda Squire
Directors of photography: Nelson George, Malika Weeden, Jon Dunham, Nick Waterman
Editor: Malika Weeden
Composers: Chloe Flower, Drew Vella

No MPAA rating, 85 minutes