×

Film Review: ‘A Ballerina’s Tale’

A worthy story gets flat-footed treatment in Nelson George's portrait of ballerina Misty Copeland.

With:
Misty Copeland, Deirdre Kelly, Susan Fales-Hill, Robyn Gardenhire, Alicia Graf Mack, Daisha Graf, Victoria Rowell, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Gilda Squire, Bevy Smith, Raven Wilkinson.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4504040/

Great films about ballet, from “The Red Shoes” to the recent doc “Ballet 422,” have always staged an elegant choreography between form and content, but Nelson George’s documentary about Misty Copeland, the groundbreaking African-American dancer, is disappointingly flat-footed. Over its 75-year history, New York’s prestigious American Ballet Theatre had never promoted a black woman to principal dancer, and Copeland’s ascendence among the pale-white “snowflakes” is certainly a story worth telling. But the point-and-shoot haphazardness of “A Ballerina’s Tale” doesn’t do justice to her electrifying stage presence, no matter how many talking heads are gathered to testify on her behalf. Bunheads may respond to Copeland’s arduous and inspiring journey to the top, but there’s precious little in George’s doc that couldn’t be (or hasn’t already been) expressed in print. 

“A Ballerina’s Tale” goes all the way back to the emergence of ballet in the late 15th century to account for Copeland’s achievement. Along with classical music and opera, the form was a touchstone of European high culture, and thus stingily resistant to diversification. Only 1 percent of all ballerinas make it into elite companies every year, the titles assert, and even a smaller fraction are black women. In June of this year, Copeland leapt into significantly more rarefied air, becoming the first black woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history. And a devastating injury nearly kept it from happening.

Popular on Variety

George began filming Copeland at the ideal time, when the peak of her career appeared as if it might be the end of it. After spending her life fighting against a pattern of discrimination — against not only dancers of color, but dancers of a fuller body type — Copeland finally got cast as one of the leads in “The Firebird” at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2012. The camera is there to see her gawp with amazement over a promotional banner hanging across the Met, and note the dramatically altered complexion of those in attendance. But Copeland was dancing with a series of stress fractures in her left shin and the surgery, involving a rod that extended as high as her knee, brought no guarantees of recovery.

Though “A Ballerina’s Tale” seeks primarily to affirm Copeland’s importance as a trailblazer, its best moments achieve real intimacy in tracking the physical and psychological ardors of her recovery. Her tolerance for pain is remarkable — her shin was so withered at the time of “The Firebird,” it could have snapped in half — and George witnesses the ache and uncertainty behind the scenes, even when a seemingly triumphant comeback performance sows doubts backstage. George never quite captures Copeland’s dynamism on stage, but in these rare instances, he does get a glimpse of her day-to-day struggle.

More often, though, George relies on Copeland’s friends, supporters and management team to vocalize her significance, along with credentialed experts in the field. (George also makes himself a talking head at one point.) “A Ballerina’s Tale” notes a long, shameful and ongoing legacy of discrimination in the field, but never pulls back the curtain far enough to reveal the subtle ways it’s perpetuated in the 21st century. As for Copeland herself, she’s immensely humble and focused on her goals, which makes her an excellent performer and an equally strong ambassador for dancers of color, but a tougher nut to crack as a documentary subject. George puts her achievement in the right context, but a profile of Copeland, of all people, should be better than skin-deep.

Film Review: ‘A Ballerina’s Tale’

Reviewed online, Chicago, Oct. 16, 2015. Running time: 84 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Sundance Selects release of an ITVS production. Produced by Leslie Norville. Executive producers, Dorria L. Ball, Ingrid Graham, Nelson George, Misty Copeland, Gilda Squire, Norville. Co-producer, Andrew Herwitz.

Crew: Directed by Nelson George. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Malika Weeden, Jon Dunham, Nicholas Waterman, George; editor, Weeden; music, Chloe Flower, Drew Vella; sound, Laura Sinnott, Judy Karp, Ashley Mui, George, Weeden; supervising sound editor, Sinnott; associate producers, New Power Generation, Terri Hines, Elizabeth Woller, Mui.

With: Misty Copeland, Deirdre Kelly, Susan Fales-Hill, Robyn Gardenhire, Alicia Graf Mack, Daisha Graf, Victoria Rowell, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Gilda Squire, Bevy Smith, Raven Wilkinson.

More Film

  • Tresor Plots $72 Million 'Asterix &

    Tresor Films Plots $72 Million 'Asterix & Obelix: The Silk Road,' New Projects (EXCLUSIVE)

    After delivering two of the highest-grossing French films of last year, Alain Attal’s Paris-based production company Tresor Films (“Sink or Swim,” “Little White Lies 2”) is kicking off 2020 with its most ambitious project yet, Guillaume Canet’s “Asterix & Obelix: The Silk Road.” Co-produced and financed by Jerome Seydoux’s Pathé, “Asterix & Obelix” is budgeted [...]

  • Anais Bertrand on Producing Sundance Player

    Anais Bertrand on the Obstacles She Faced to Produce Sundance Player ‘Jumbo’

    Zoé Wittock’s debut feature, “Jumbo,” screening in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition, is also the first feature film produced by up-and-coming French producer Anais Bertrand, of Insolence Productions, who has cut her teeth on award-winning shorts, including winning the Procirep Short Film Producer Award last year. “Jumbo” is about a young woman, played by Noémie [...]

  • 'Parasite,' 'Jojo Rabbit' Win ACE Eddie

    'Parasite,' 'Jojo Rabbit' Win ACE Eddie Awards for Top Feature Films

    “Parasite” and “Jojo Rabbit” have won the top feature film trophies at the 70th Annual ACE Eddie Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Jinmo Yang won the dramatic feature category for “Parasite” over “Ford v Ferrari,” “Joker,” “The Irishman,” and “Marriage Story.” The victory marks the first time in ACE Eddie Awards history that a [...]

  • Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant,

    Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant, Dies at 73

    Gregg Smith, a dancer, casting director and assistant choreographer who had a long association with director Kenny Ortega, has died. He was 73. Smith died on Jan. 1. Popular on Variety The industry veteran worked as a performer in the national touring company of the musical “Hair” and in a Los Angeles production of “Jesus [...]

  • Oscar Isaac Golden Globes 2016

    Film News Roundup: Oscar Isaac Joins Superhero Movie 'The Great Machine'

    In today’s film news roundup, Oscar Isaac boards “The Great Machine,” Keira Knightley joins “Silent Night” and “The Dog Doc” finds a home. CASTINGS Legendary has closed a deal for Oscar Isaac to star in and produce superhero saga “The Great Machine.” The project is based on Brian K. Vaughan’s comic book series “Ex Machina” [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    U.S. Movie Admissions Plunge 4.6% in 2019 Amid Box Office Decline

    U.S. movie admissions slid 4.6% last year to 1.24 billion, the second lowest admissions number during the current century, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) has reported. North American box office for the year declined 4.1% to $11.4 billion, NATO said Friday. That figure was in line with the estimate released at the end [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'National Treasure 3' Moves Ahead From Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer

    Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer are moving ahead with a third “National Treasure” movie with “Bad Boys for Life” screenwriter Chris Bremner tapped to write the script. Bremner has also signed to write a fourth “Bad Boys” for Sony with Bruckheimer producing. Bruckheimer produced the three “Bad Boys” and the two “National Treasure” movies. Popular on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content