Ballerina1“She always stood out. She had what you can’t teach and you can’t learn. She had a fire.”  Susan Fales-Hill.

Balletomanes will love this. This is  a very intimate portrait of Misty Copeland as we follow her life, see performances from backstage, and follow her struggle to return to performing after a major operation. Whilst this doco may leave a little to be desired in its technical aspects, this is a very rewarding film.

Readers might be familiar with her autobiography Life In Motion, published in  2014, as well as her children’s book, Firebird. Copeland has also featured on the cover of Time magazine and is the face of the “I will what I want” campaign for Under Armour.

Copeland was the first Afro-American dancer to be accepted into the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, established some 75 years ago.

I was lucky enough to see the American Ballet Theatre perform when they were in Brisbane back in 2014 but sadly she wasn’t among the performers.

Director Nelson George began filming Copeland in 2012, shortly after she suffered a potentially devastating injury which threatened her career. Some of the film’s most intense moments are glimpses of uncertainty and pain : for example the hidden fear in Ms. Copeland’s eyes when, having sustained another injury on her road to recovery, she is stretched and manipulated by a physical therapist.

A BALLERINA’S TALE captures some wonderful scenes of Copeland dancing. We see her in class, we see her luscious, sultry solo in La Bayadere , we see snippets of her Swan Lake performances, and her work in the new version of the iconic Firebird. We see her grace, poise, elegance, spot on musicality and that sizzling energy.

George includes home movies of Copeland dancing in her living room as a child that show her early talent. Copeland grew up, one of six children. Her first breakthrough was when  she won  a major teenage dance competition, Spotlight, footage of which is included, before moving to New York City at age 17 to join the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company.

Copeland went on to join the main company on a tour through China, and her career developed further.

Copeland talks about how hard it was coping at first when she moved as a youngster to  New York and the struggles involved in being the only African American among 80 dancers.

Interviews, both with Copeland and with those who know her on and off stage, are intertwined with dance footage. Copeland comes across vivaciously, with friendly, warm frankness and intimacy. Copeland also discusses being more muscular and curvy than the rigid balletic ideal as imposed by Balanchine, and reveals that at one stage she went through a time where she used to devour boxes of donuts.

Various legendary critics of the dance world discuss the difficulties faced by dancers of color, with Deirdre Kelly citing a New York Times story heavily criticising ABT and other major companies for their lack of black ballerinas. Shortly after the article appeared, Copeland danced the starring role in The Firebird to much critical acclaim.

This performance was followed by her history-making starring turn as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Copeland has forced the ballet world to question the rigidity and legitimacy of its own aesthetics, and for ballet blanc.

In one delightful scene we see Copeland discussing her career with Raven Wilkinson, one of Copeland’s major inspirations and a black ballerina who preceded her, by several decades, performing with professional dance companies such as the Ballet Ruse and the Dutch National Ballet. Their discussions include an interesting exchange  about the cygnet pas de quatre from Swan Lake.

There is a rich emotional context to the bonding between these two generations of barrier-breaking performers .Copeland had also been introduced to several other black female trailblazers . Also of great interest is the roll call of black dancers at the credits at the end.

This doco explores the  challenges that ballet dancers have and highlights their obsessive determination, in the face of physical and societal challenges such as racism, to perform to their utmost ability. It also raises the issue for us Australians of where are the black ( in our case Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander ) classical dancers here? Yes there is the awesome Bangarra company, but where else do we find them?

“I think that people think that sometimes I focus too much on the fact that I’m a black dancer,” Copeland says at the start of the film. “There’s never been a black principal woman … in the top companies of the world. In New York City Ballet, in New York City. I don’t think people realize what a feat it is, being a black woman. But that’s so much of who I am, and I think it’s so much a part of my story. “

Indeed it is! Copeland is now a Principal at the American Ballet Theatre Company, and continues to follow her calling to much acclaim.

A BALLERINA’S TALE will screen as part of the Hotdocs season at Palace Cinemas on June 26 and June 29.