If you think #OscarsSoWhite, consider the world of elite ballet. And if you want to understand why the current conversation over the lack of diversity among this year’s film academy nominees is just one thread of a much larger tapestry, watch Nelson George’s documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale: The Incredible Rise of Misty Copeland” on PBS on Monday night.
Watch too if you are a dance aficionado or a woman, if you have a daughter or for that matter a son, if you are a Southern California resident or just a thinking member of a culture that is changing, with various degrees of resistance, in almost every area.
It won’t take long, just 90 minutes that include several exquisite dance scenes, Copeland’s now-signature friendly frankness and none of the crazy-girl “Black Swan” pathology we have come to expect from tales of the dance world.
For the record, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 9: A Feb. 8 Calendar review of the PBS documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale: The Incredible Rise of Misty Copeland” said Copeland is the first black principal dancer of a major ballet company. Rather, she is the first black female principal at American Ballet Theatre.
“I think that people think that sometimes I focus too much on the fact that I’m a black dancer,” Copeland says in the film’s opening moments. “There’s never been a black principal woman … in the top companies of the world. In New York City Ballet, in New York City. I don’t think 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.”
That story has become increasingly well known. The subject of local fascination since she won the Los Angeles Music Center’s Spotlight competition at age 15, Copeland was internationally famous even before the American Ballet Theatre promotion to prima ballerina last summer. She has starred in music videos, served as a judge on “So You think You Can Dance,” written a memoir and a children’s book, been part of the Under Armour “I Will What I Want” campaign and is reportedly developing a scripted television series about ballet.
“A Ballerina’s Tale” debuted at the 2015 TriBeCa Film Festival, where it was picked up by Sundance Selects, sending her on the late-night tour. Stephen Colbert pointed out that we had a black president before we had a black prima ballerina; Jimmy Fallon asked if she was the woman who saved ballet.
Instead, Copeland was a black prodigy of an art form that was and to a certain extent still is almost literally defined as white.
As dance critics and cultural historians point out early on in “A Ballerina’s Tale,” the aesthetic of ballet, especially in the years since choreographer George Balanchine’s reign, is one of conformity to a narrow ideal. The long, thin White Swan, the Sugar Plum fairy, the ethereal Giselle.
Those not genetically programmed to fit this ideal simply had no place in the world of elite ballet.
For reasons of his own, George chooses to slide quickly over her remarkable and at times contentious back story, which began in San Pedro. Along with some early pictures and home movies, Copeland offers a quick introduction of herself as a shy child, one of six living with their single mother in a hotel on food stamps, who finds her artistic self through dance. Nothing is mentioned of the dance teachers who took her in or the well-publicized legal battle that ensued. Instead, the film moves quickly from her Spotlight win to her move to New York at age 17.
There, she and new friend Leyla Fayyaz were the youngest members of the ABT company as they traveled to China; when Fayyaz left the company, Copeland felt increasingly isolated. Suggestions that she lose weight led to an eating disorder and self-doubt. “I felt like I was sinking for a while,” she says.
Recognizing Copeland’s talent, artistic director Kevin McKenzie asked New York philanthropist and society figure Susan Fales-Hill to mentor her. Fales-Hill introduced the young dancer to “a kitchen cabinet” of black female trailblazers who encouraged Copeland to overcome the fear naturally arising from being “the only black woman in a company of 80 dancers.”
As with most art forms, ballet is judged by what has gone before, and what had gone before is what dance critic Deirdre Kelly calls “the ballet blanc.” To accept Copeland as a star required many people to rethink the very image of ballet.
Fortunately, as cultural critic Brenda Dixon Gottschild points out, the world Copeland entered had changed just enough that “you couldn’t prevent a talent of that great dimension.”
Indeed, ballet’s elitism was already threatening to be its demise; audiences were dwindling, young patrons were difficult to find. When, in 2012, Copeland was cast as the titular role in “The Firebird,” Lincoln Center was suddenly filled with exactly the sort of audience that could save the art form from extinction.
Friendly, funny and wonderfully human, Copeland is a voice to which anyone can relate; she radiates self-respect and self-awareness without falling into self-absorption.
“A Ballerina’s Tale” is far from an exhaustive or even complete documentary, but George, who began filming after a post-"Firebird” injury briefly threatened Copeland’s career, captures the behind-the-scenes grit required of any great artist while also making it clear why this artist is more important than most.
In too many art forms, excellence has become equated with inertia, continually defined in oppressively narrow and antiquated terms. Ballet got lucky. Misty Copeland was a force greater even than itself.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)