A Ballerina's Tale


Action / Documentary

Rotten Tomatoes Critics - Certified Fresh 69%
Rotten Tomatoes Audience - Spilled 38%
IMDb Rating 6.4 10 546


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1hr 25 min
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Movie Reviews

Reviewed by Paul Allaer 7 / 10

Intimate look at the amazing Misty Copeland

"A Ballerina's Tale" (2015 release; 85 min.) is a documentary about the life and times of Misty Copeland, an African-American ballet dancer at the American Ballet Theater. As the movie opens, we see Copeland at a young age (13 or 14?) at a ballet practice. We are then informed how few ballet dancers make it into the elite dancing troupes, and of those that make it, how very, very few African-Americans or dancers with a 'muscular' body make it. After that we start following Misty Copeland , as she goes about her day-to-day routine. To tell you more would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.

Couple of comments: this is not an earth-chattering documentary by any means, yet it serves a good purpose, namely to shine the light on the lack of diversity in the ballet world. Or, as one of the 'talking head experts' phrases it in the movie: why does ballet look like the Alabama Country Club in 1952?". Or as the New York Times put it in a major article: "Where Are the Black Swans?". Other topics that this documentary looks at include the issue of injuries, which Copeland also has to deal with, unfortunately for her. Ballet dancing at the elite performance companies such as the ABT has become so much more demanding in recent years (and it always was quite demanding before that too). Then there is the footage of Copeland performing. Even though she didn't start dancing until she was 13, you can tell from the footage of those first years how much talent and grace she had from the get-go. Watching Copeland dancing Sawn Lake is pure delight. Final note: from the end credits, it looks like the movie was funded through Kickstarter (it looks like hundreds and hundreds of people contributed).

"A Ballerina's Tale" opened this weekend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati. The Sunday early evening screening where I saw this at was attended okay but not great. Regardless, if you like ballet, or are simply curious to learn more about the amazing Misty Copeland, you cannot go wrong with this movie, and I would readily recommend you check this out, be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray.

Reviewed by kaitlinstreet 6 / 10

With a trailblazing star as the subject, the film falls flat on expectations

Ballet was first performed in the Italian Renaissance courts during the 15th century. Sadly, not much about the world of ballet has changed since then. Nelson George's documentary A Ballerina's Tale tells the story of the trailblazing African American ballerina Misty Copeland. During 2015, Copeland became the first African American woman principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre's seventy five years.

Ballet's traditional aesthetics were imagined and defined by George Balanchine, a Russian choreographer often regarded as the father of American ballet. Balanchine idealized the strikingly slender, youthful, and pale ballerina. This precise image, along with ballet's tendency towards assimilation and uniformity of dancers, creates a problem for African American ballet dancers. The film explains that despite being a ballet prodigy, Copeland's dark skin tone, muscular body, and larger chest provided objections and created road bumps in her career.

George fails to provide insight into Copeland's complicated and interesting backstory. Aside from briefly stating that she grew up in a lower income household, George grazes past the details concerning Copeland's abusive childhood. There is no explanation given as to how Copeland worked her way out of a difficult past to become the sensation she is today. Michael Rechtshaffen of The LA Times says, "Copeland's victories are shortchanged by the film's prevailing sense of detachment from its main subject." In my opinion, the audience is left feeling as though the triumphant story of an underdog exists but is inexplicably left untold. Sadly, this is a recurring theme in A Ballerina's Tale.

The film begins just before Copeland receives the lead in Firebird, one of the most iconic and prestigious roles in ballet. This role is typically given to prima ballerinas, and it had certainly never been given to a black ballerina before. In one of the film's most climactic and triumphant bits, prominent and accomplished black women from around the country come to see Copeland perform in this groundbreaking production. However, while the film continues to mention the magnanimity of this event, there are no personal interviews about that night by either Copeland or the women in attendance. The event is narrated over a snippet of Copeland's stunning performance, giving little documentation of the important evening.

The film's conflict occurs when Copeland faces an injury not long after opening Firebird. George chooses to focus largely on Copeland's struggle with her pain and her duty to continue climbing to the top of the ballet world as an African American woman. Many scenes depict Copeland leaping and bounding about the stage accompanied by a narration of her pain. George includes various clips of Copeland's physical therapy in which she is violently bent and cracked. These scenes are gritty and work to illustrate the trauma and pain that Copeland chose to endure in order to continue to pave a path for black ballerinas in the world of professional ballet.

A Ballerina's Tale is largely anticlimactic. After overcoming a fracture that nearly snapped her leg in half, Copeland became the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre's history, However, Brian Seibert of the New York Times comments that even this momentous occasion is announced in sober, anticlimactic text: "Dreams do come true."

George's fault lies in his lack of depth in any one direction. The film neither focuses intently on Copeland's life and story or the topical issue of race in the ballet world. Towards the beginning of the film, various authors and other specialists give commentary on "the color of ballet" and its history. This short segment touches on the belief that ballet is one of the last remaining institutions of white supremacy in the modern world. Ballet is known to be soft and delicate and white. The idea of a black white swan for instance has previously been unimaginable to the ballet world. However, these asides exist only within the first quarter of the film. The film then loses some of its purpose as it fails to fully connect Copeland's journey with the barriers she was forced to breakdown due to racial inequality in her field.

In one exception, an interview with Susan Fales-Hill, an African American author and producer, explains the way in which various trailblazing African American women mentored Copeland. The most poignant scene in the film occurs when Raven Wilkinson, a woman who is known to have been the first African American woman to have danced with a major ballet company, visits Copeland in her home. Copeland describes herself sobbing the first time she saw a video of Wilkinson dancing and explains that she didn't know that professional black ballerinas existed. The moment is sincere yet heavy as the two share a kinship over a fight they continue to fight. The two briefly discuss race and the importance of discussing its issues openly. Even this more intimate scene leave much is left unsaid that could have provided background and intrigue to the audience. There is no mention of Wilkinson being forced to paint her face white for her performances as a young girl, the violence she faced in some southern towns the company performed in, or her eventual leave from the company. Instead, George provides a lengthy scene in which the two women lovingly bond over their shared remembrance of the choreography from Swan Lake. The film is full of documentary self indulgence such as lengthy scenes of Misty walking down the street or getting dressed for her performances. The film's dialogue is sporadic and uncentered, creating little to no story line. With a living legend as a subject, it is curious that George chooses to focus on Copeland's recovery from an injury as the subject for the film. Injuries are obstacles faced by athletes at all levels. Copeland's struggles reach much further, as do her accomplishments. George's film leaves the audience wanting more because they know that so much more exists.

Reviewed by Amari-Sali 8 / 10

In this overview of Copeland's career, you learn about her, her profession, and her predecessors.

A Ballerina's Tale focuses on is Misty Copeland, a young woman who began her career at 13, a late start in the art form, and even in the modern age, faced great prejudice. Not in a similar fashion to her predecessors, like the visibly seen Raven Wilkinson, but between being a Black woman, as well as not fitting into George Balanchine's vision of the perfect ballerina, a lot of her professional career was an uphill battle.

Of which, largely remains unseen. Which isn't to say Copeland's struggles aren't documented, but more so title cards provide you details than imagery of the blood, sweat, and tears which come from dance practice or her having what could have been a career-ending surgery. Nonetheless, in this overview of Copeland's career, you learn about her, her profession, and though she is being touted as the first Black women in many areas of ballet, the film makes sure to pay homage, and have predecessors seen, so that anyone watching will see there is a community, and Copeland isn't just an exception.


Though I have gone to ballets before, and likely will again in the future, I am not someone who knows all the technical terms, nor the history. Within A Ballerina's Tale, however, a basic overview, or rather foundation, is given so that you are made aware just enough without being overwhelmed.

I liked that while Misty was given the title "The First Black…" she made it a point to not make it all about her. She has her title, but wants to make sure you know who Raven Wilkinson is, wants you to be familiar with the other people who, even if they don't get the credit, did pave the way so that Misty didn't have the full-on loneliness which comes from being the first non-white person in an industry.

Within the film it features multiple instances of her performances caught on film, which I enjoyed since we see her practice so much, even post-surgery. So to see how much talent, focus, and drive she has really pushed multiple ideas. The main one being: ballet is no joke. For whether you are physically seeing, through an X-ray, the damage it did on Copeland's body, hearing what many would consider horror stories, and Copeland pushing the idea her pain tolerance is almost superhuman, to not leave the film respecting the madness and love these performers have, I think would be impossible.

Lastly, I have to say I loved the film directly addressing race, and showing Black women having comradery. For among the representation Copeland brings to ballet, I also believe that the film brings the idea that just as she shouldn't be alone on stage, no Black person, or person of color in general, should feel they will be alone in the audience. For while, as one of her supporters note, there perhaps aren't a lot of men interested in the art form, that is changing.

Low Points

Being that we are told Copeland is one of 6, I did find it odd that we don't see any member of her family throughout the movie. For while I do feel we get a strong introduction to her professional life, her personal life is almost completely absent. Which I'm sure may be welcomed by those who may care only about her career, but it leaves the film fractured. To put it another way, it has a Beyoncé documentary style. Something in which everything is tightly controlled and manufactured for consumption, to the point nothing seems real or raw. You see what you are meant to see and hear what you are meant to hear, and nothing which doesn't imply perfection, and the most marketable person around will get to you without someone breaking Copeland's trust.

On The Fence

With the large amount of people introduced, I did wish that the name cards would have appeared more than once. For while I latched onto who her manager was, there were other names in there which I thought would have just had one segment and never be seen again, and when they popped up later in the film I struggled to remember who they were.

Overall: Worth Seeing

Let me start off by admitting that this isn't like the majority of the films placed within the "Worth Seeing" label. For one, this isn't something I think is of universal interest, nor is it on the level for a non-ballet fan to suddenly take an interest. For while Copeland is charismatic, and surely this documentary will make for a good foundation in case her life is even dramatized, there remains this feeling that it belongs in a niche. Likely because, between the topic of ballet, as well as Black women in the medium, it seems finely focused. To the point, the film acts as more of a presentation on representation than us truly getting to know Copeland, those who came before her, or even those who supported her. For, as stated, with the absence of her family, and more so people speaking about her than with her throughout the movie, there is a bit of disconnect when it comes to this being about Copeland. Though, I would argue, while this film disappoints in truly getting to know Copeland past her smiling façade, at the very least if you know a young Black child, or a young girl of color, who is interested in the art form, at the very least the film lets her know she isn't alone, and the possibilities are endless.

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