A feature documentary film about African-American ballerina Misty Copeland is coming to your local PBS station this February. A Ballerina’s Tale, by George Nelson, examines her prodigious rise, her potentially career ending injury, and themes of race and body image in the classical ballet world. The film also includes exclusive, unseen footage of Misty performing.
Few dancers make it to the highest levels of classical ballet. Of that already small number only a fraction of them are black women. Misty Copeland, from the small California city of San Pedro, had pulled herself up the ladder at American Ballet Theater (ABT) from the studio company to the corps de ballet to soloist, as depicted in the film. The only rung in the ladder left for her to climb was principal dancer aka prima ballerina, and on June 30, 2015, three months after the film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, she became the first African American woman promoted to that elite position in the 75-year history of ABT.
The film depicts how, in 2013, after more than a decade at ABT, Misty was offered the lead role in Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird to be performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, a major coup for a soloist.
The night of her performance Misty danced beautifully. But at the celebration afterwards she revealed she had been performing in great pain. Later Misty found out that she had six fractures in her left shin. Without corrective surgery the shin might one day break, and many doubted she would ever dance again.
A Ballerina’s Tale is then an intimate look at this artist during a crucial period of her life. The bulk of the film is a cinema verité influenced look at Misty’s journey, from the triumph of Firebird, the painful road back to dancing, and to an unexpected third act where Misty not only returns to the ABT stage but emerges as a pop star in the process.
Misty Copeland’s career shines a light on several challenges within the world of classical ballet: the absence of women of color at major companies despite so many gifted black women ready to make the leap; the emphasis on skinny bodies for ballerinas impacts the health of professional dancers and sends a negative message to young fans around the world. Misty, because of her race and her curves, is central to both issues in the classical dance world.
The film climaxes with a landmark performance by Misty in Swan Lake, which is an acknowledgement by ABT that she is back, dancing at the highest level, and the fulfillment of the dream of many to see a true black swan at a mainstream international company. A Ballerina’s Tale is the story of how a great talent and a powerful will combined can open doors within a very cloistered world. Shortly afterwards, she did indeed reach the pinnacle in her profession, prima ballerina of the American Ballet Theater, and this film shows how she earned it.
A Ballerina’s Tale is a co-production of Urban Romances, Inc. and Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). In Nashville, A Ballerina’s Tale airs Monday, February 8, at 9:00 pm on NPT-HD (channel 8.1 / Comcast channels 8 and/or 1002), Tuesday, February 9, at 12:00 am on NPT2 (channel 8.2 / Comcast ch. 241) , Wednesday, February 10, at 3:00 am on NPT-HD, Wednesday, February 10, at 9:00 am on NPT2, Thursday, February 11, at 2:00 pm on NPT2, Sunday, February 14, at 2:00 am on NPT-HD, and Sunday, February 14, at 5:00 am on NPT2.