“A Ballerina’s Tale” – 2015 Tribeca Film Festival Review


There are several compelling dimensions to the story of Misty Copeland, the first African American ballet dancer in nearly two decades to assume a prestigious soloist role at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York. Copeland’s journey is one inevitably tied to the pressures of becoming a pioneer in a traditional world accustomed to promoting white dancers with long, lithe lines since the days of George Balanchine, the father of American ballet.  It is a journey where, just as she is on her way to the pinnacle of her career, a major set of injuries threatens to derail her quest to become promoted from a soloist to a principal at ABT.  Copeland’s story is also a victory that has crossover appeal, drawing in audience members previously unfamiliar with ballet and scoring endorsements with companies such as Under Armour.

It is a shame, then, that the documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale” focuses on each of these dimensions at length but delivers a disjointed narrative in its 85-minute running time.  Directed by Nelson George and co-executive produced by Copeland, the film opens with a home video of a young Copeland dancing, her radiance already apparent through the graininess of the clip.  However, other than a passing reference to an “underprivileged” background, the film briskly moves on (for a detailed account of Copeland’s rocky childhood and upbringing, one would need to consult her 2014 autobiography Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina).  Interviews with Copeland, her mentors and fellow dancers provide a number of interesting perspectives on her ambition mixed with intense trepidation in becoming a pioneer for the black community.

That semblance of a support system melts away when the story shifts to the aftermath of her career-defining starring role in Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, when it is revealed that Copeland has been dancing with stress fractures in her left leg.  The viewer is now a fly on the wall as Copeland consults doctors following the 2011-2012 ABT season.  This perspective continues as Copeland gradually returns to dancing after nearly a year away, embarking on a world tour that seemingly catapults her into fame, although this is misleading given that her celebrity status was established well before her injuries.

All these events make for a potentially dramatic direction surrounding a very likable personality, but the viewer is strangely disconnected from the proceedings.  Details such as the severity of Copeland’s injury – she had a plate screwed into the tibia of her left leg, but the potential impact on a dancer’s mechanics is not fully developed or explained – are glossed over in favor of the camera resting too long on repetitive series of scenes.  Some of these include practice sessions at the barre, or the trailing of Copeland as she walks into venues and throughout New York City, that setting itself figuring into too many B-roll shots.  As a result, Copeland’s voice is not consistently heard, her personality really only felt in the extended dance sequences put together specifically for the film.

Ultimately, “A Ballerina’s Tale” is a nice introductory look at some of Copeland’s triumphs and tribulations, but is otherwise a lost opportunity that could have benefited from a more piercing first-person perspective and editorial investigation.  Greater attention to connecting chronological dots and a densely packed story focusing on information in favor of superfluous footage (including George unnecessarily inserting himself as an interview subject) would have elevated the film into must-watch territory.

“A Ballerina’s Tale” made its world premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.