Onstage, Misty Copeland’s career revolves — chaînés? — around making hard work look easy. She breezes through Under Armour commercials and brisés through book signings, but she’s most famous for defying gravity onstage with American Ballet Theatre. ABT’s first black principal dancer, Copeland has been lighting up the ballet world for years. Now, the documentary A Ballerina’s Tale is lifting the curtain on just how excruciating her journey has been.
A Ballerina’s Tale aired on PBS this Monday after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last April. Copeland has been called a prodigy countless times, but the film unearths hardships that often go unmentioned when detailing her rise to star status. She experienced the usual setbacks any dancer can expect — ruthless competition, career-changing injuries, constant scrutiny. But unlike most of her her peers, Copeland also had to succeed as a black, self-described “curvy” woman in an industry where, historically, “balletomanes, choreographers and directors generally concurred that black bodies were unsuited to the lines of classical technique.”
While Copeland’s dancing has received overwhelming critical acclaim, her offstage persona has been subject to some negative reviews. “I think that people think that I sometimes focus too much on the fact that I’m a black dancer,” says Copeland in the opening lines of A Ballerina’s Tale. “But there’s never been a black principal woman at the Royal Ballet. At the Paris Opera Ballet. At the Kirov Ballet, in the top companies in the world. In New York City Ballet, in New York City. I don’t think that 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.”
Copeland is of course remarkable, but A Ballerina’s Tale also shines in spotlighting the community it took to get her where she is today. Copeland was just 17 when she moved by herself from Southern California to New York City to perform as a junior dancer with ABT. At first, she struggled with depression, binge-eating and isolation. But when the company’s executive director noticed Copeland’s listlessness, she reached out to Susan Fales-Hill, then-vice chair of the American Ballet Theatre Board, a strong advocate for diversifying ballet (and formally the lead writer and producer for A Different World). Hill used her connections to arrange for a squad of black female “firsts” to mentor Copeland.
The women included singer and actress Diahann Carroll and cosmetics mogul Veronica Webb. Later, Gilda Squire, Copeland’s manager and publicist, added former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Raven Wilkinson, the first black woman to tour with a major American ballet company, to the crew. Wilkinson soon became a close friend and mentor to Copeland.
“So many films about artists seem to focus on the white, male artist achieving alone,” writes film critic Ren Jender. “But this documentary shows what many of us know from real life, that artists need support systems in place — and women and people of color often have to build their own.”
With the help of her mentors, Copeland was able to regain her focus. Within three years, she was chosen to star in The Firebird, a role that had never been performed by a black woman at a major theater in the history of ballet. For Copeland’s debut performance, Hill arranged for a whole host of famous black women, including the head of BET, to be in attendance. “To sit in that theater that night, surrounded by African-American women of accomplishment watching a ballerina take center stage in one of the most important works, just felt like her life had come full circle,” said Hill in the film.
The significance of that support system is not lost on Copeland. For years she has made a special point of encouraging young people of color to pursue ballet through speaking engagements and activism. Her autobiography, Life in Motion, was an instant best-seller, but less known is her children’s book, Firebird, in which she tells a young African-American girl who dreams of being a dancer that she can — and will — succeed.
“There’s generations of white girls who can see themselves as ballerinas,” says Copeland in A Ballerina’s Tale. “It’s not even a question because they can see themselves on the stage. And it’s like this psychological thing where [women of color] don’t see ourselves up there, so it’s not something we think we can even dream.”
You can watch A Ballerina’s Tale on PBS’s website, but that’s not the only place to find Copeland right now. She stars in a stunning photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar, in which she re-creates poses from some of Edgar Degas’ most famous paintings. And later this spring, she’ll perform with the American Ballet Theater in The Sleeping Beauty, Firebird, La Fille Mal Gardee, Le Corsaire, The Golden Cockerel, Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet.