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Kansas City Native Misty Copeland Rises From Hardship To History In 'A Ballerina's Tale'

Courtesy Oskar Landi
Urban Romances, A Sundance Selects Release
Misty Copeland in Nelson George's 'A Ballerina's Tale.'

Though the late choreographer George Balanchine may have been a genius, he had a skewed vision of what his ballerinas should look like. He dictated they be flat-chested and that they follow diets so strict they stopped menstruating. Today that's called body fascism in some circles. And it might have produced as much hurt as art.

As recounted by Kansas City native Misty Copeland in the new documentary A Ballerina's Tale, that model of pre-pubescent physicality was still prevalent when she moved to New York from her adopted California. Copeland remembers looking around at the other girls from the perspective of her own body, one with fuller breasts and the muscular legs of a track-and-field Olympian, and believing she would never rate.

That self-doubt proved illusory. Copeland persevered with talent and grace, and earlier this year was named the first African-American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Director Nelson George's movie, though not without flaws, is an earned valentine to a woman who, at 33, is a viscerally contemporary role model to girls and young women aspiring to break their own molds.

As a child, Copeland lived with her large family in a cramped motel (a detail given more screen time in a recent 60 Minutes profile than in George's movie) but found peace and beauty in dance classes. Observers say she was always "aiming for principal," and home movies and former teachers attest to her charisma and skill. Yet because she had so few black role models, she wondered whether she was pursuing a dream forever deferred.

Soon after joining the American Ballet Theatre as a member of the corps de ballet in 2001, her time on stage was diminished by injuries. A Ballerina's Tale often shows Copeland in pain from back spasms and shin fractures, and as groaning putty in the hands of an aggressive physical therapist. She's lucky invasive leg surgery went as well as it did.

But her trials weren't all physical, or of her own making. Early in her time at ABT she was the only African-American face in the room, and though it didn't dissuade her it did nag at her; it was ever-present. She found respite and inspiration being mentored by a couple of older black ballerinas such as Raven Wilkinson, who relayed her own struggles several decades earlier.

George does have filmmaking on his resume but is better known as an author; he was twice nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award. That or his loyalty to Copeland may explain a couple of the film's drawbacks, including the glaring absence of the custody battle between her mother and an early ballet teacher, a struggle that could have drained the octane from her momentum. She also mentions binge-eating Krispy Kreme donuts, but the film quickly forgets the troubling confession.

It’s the scenes of Copeland on stage that ultimately make the film a joy. Snippets from "The Firebird" and "Swan Lake" feature her at her loveliest and most purposeful. And when she lifts a champagne flute to a huge banner unfurled outside of Lincoln Center to promote one of her starring roles, she seems to be lit from within.

A Ballerina's Tale opens October 30 at the Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111, 913-383-7756 (it's also available via Movies On Demand).

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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