“A Ballerina’s Tale” is several things.
First, of course, it is about the career of Misty Copeland, principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, who has defied dance convention both racially (she’s African American) and physiognomically (she’s curvy, not celery-stalk emaciated) to rise to the top of her art.
But while Nelson George’s documentary touches upon the highlights of Copeland’s career trajectory, it is in no way a conventional biography. In fact, the film deals with Copeland’s personality and her private life in only the most rudimentary fashion. (There’s not a hint of negativity anywhere in this portrait.)
What we get here is lots of footage of Copeland rehearsing and dancing and walking around NYC, balanced with lots of talking heads discussing her impact on the ballet world.
In addition, the film takes a look back at the handful of black ballerinas — among them Raven Wilkinson, who has become something of a mentor and role model for Copeland — who paved the way over the last century.
Then director George shifts gears yet again to follow Copeland’s recovery a couple of years back from tibia stress fractures that threatened to end her career. This segment emphasizes the near-constant pain with which many dancers must deal. It makes the case that no NFL quarterback on Monday morning has to tough out more physical discomfort than a dancer who has performed a full-length classical ballet.
As a result of these several themes, “A Ballerina’s Tale” is both inspiring and a bit undernourished. It’s about several things, but delves deeply into none of them. Weirdly enough, the film feels padded at just 85 minutes.
But here’s the thing: Watching Copeland dance makes it all worthwhile. She’s graceful, powerful, sexy, and strong — basically she’s redefining what a prima ballerina can be.