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.
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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.