A new documentary directed by filmmaker Nelson George reveals the grace and graciousness of Misty Copeland. Titled A Ballerina’s Tale, it covers a difficult two years in the dancer’s life, from a career-threatening injury right after her debut in Ratmansky’s Firebird up to her recovery and rise to principal at American Ballet Theatre. Inspiring and intimate, it will be released in theaters October 14 but you can catch it at film festivals starting this Saturday.
After seeing an advance screening and Q & A at Bowtie Cinemas in Chelsea last night, I would say these are the most memorable scenes.
1. Archival footage of Misty rehearsing as a slender 13-year old, probably her first year studying ballet, plus stage clips of herself as a teenager in Don Q, reveal the miracle that is Misty. After only two years of training, she was invited to join the Studio Company at ABT. In this footage you can see how completely she inhabited the ballet idiom from the start—classical arms, lifted chest, energized spine, gorgeous legs and feet, and natural musicality. The word prodigy is not uttered, but how else to describe this phenomenon?
2. To the strains of Minkus violin music, she dances Gamzatti’s solo from La Bayadère alone on a dark stage. You see how elegantly poignant she can be, even though it is clearly a made-for-camera performance.
3. In her own living room, Misty meets with Raven Wilkinson, who was the one African American dancer with the Ballet Russe. Together they go over the choreography for the cynettes (“little swans”), with Raven humming the tune and the two of them marking with their feet and turning their heads in sync.
4. While performing in Rome, Misty gets a back spasm and has to resort to a local chiropractor—who manhandles her. Everyone in the audience flinches as he tackles her full on, crunches her joints, and whips her head around. But at the Q & A afterward, Nelson George told us that she went back to the same practitioner the next day.
5. Susan Fales-Hill, who has mentored Misty, talks about the guys she knows “who would rather fight in Iraq or have a root canal than go to the ballet” —and these guys are now buying tickets to the Met because they’ve seen Misty in photos or videos.
6. The moment when Misty turns a corner and sees a giant billboard of herself, she lets out a sort of groan-guffaw. By that point in the shooting, she was totally comfortable under the camera’s eye and was at ease just being herself.
7. OK, it’s not part of the film, but at the Q & A afterward, Misty showed her usual sweetness in answering questions. She wrapped up by saying “Ballet is life, pain, and beauty…If you don’t love it, it’s just not worth it.”
The film makes us realize how close Misty came, due to her debilitating leg injury, to never dancing again. If that had happened, it means we would have had to wait much longer for an African American female dancer to be named principal at ABT. And we would have been deprived of Misty’s dancing in all the roles we will now get to see her in.