Greetings again from the darkness. You may have seen her “60 Minutes” segment earlier this year, or you may have heard the announcement over the summer when she became the first African-American Principal dancer (prima ballerina) at American Ballet Theatre. Or perhaps you recognize her being featured in advertisements for Under Armour or T-Mobile. If none of this sounds familiar, then you may be totally unaware of Misty Copeland, and director Nelson George has just the documentary for you.
One need not be an expert on ballet to recognize the ability, tenacity and stage presence of the lovely and incredibly athletic Misty Copeland. The grainy footage of her dancing at age 15 can’t prevent this star from shining. Soon enough she is the only black dancer in the American Ballet Theatre troupe of 80, and from there she just continues to advance.
The film touches on her unusual and challenging childhood, and also provides a brief primer on the history of ballet (15th century Italy, 17th century France), before naming the few names of the African-American ballet dancers over the years. See, skin with color and a muscular body were considered taboo in the lofty world of ballet … and it became even worse during the era of famed choreographer George Balanchine. His vision of the perfect dancer led to a culture of eating disorders, depression and impossible standards for body image. The point is that Misty Copeland not just broke down color barriers, but also body image expectations … even though she went through her own struggles (Krispy Kreme, anyone?).
We are also provided a peek at the physical grind and incredible strain that these dancers go through to appear so graceful and effortless on stage. A stress fracture in her shin threatened Misty’s career, and the film follows her recovery and remarkable ability to become an even better dancer after the injury and surgery.
Most interesting is the relationship that Susan Fales-Hill cultivated with Misty. This mentorship helped Misty fight through the personal and social challenges, while also connecting with the movers and shakers throughout the African-American community. The film’s best sequence has Misty connecting with Raven Wilkinson, who was a ground-breaking dancer from the 1950’s. Watching these two ladies (separated by multiple generations) bond through dancing is heart-warming and extraordinary.
Of course, we also are treated to a few extended dance performances from Misty – both live performances and the under-appreciated practice sessions. This culminates with her being cast as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” … yes, a black ‘white swan’. Her talent leaves us in awe, and is surely inspiring an entire generation of young dancers. The film certainly would have been better served by allowing us to connect with or understand Misty the person … but we must be satisfied watching Misty the dancer.
To see Misty’s Under Armour commercial entitled “I Will What I Want”: