This 2015 documentary about the incredible rise of Misty Copeland is co-produced and narrated by the ballerina herself. She made history when she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer of the legendary American Ballet Theatre (ABT). ABT was founded in the belief that they could emulate Russia and France in terms of having a world-class ballet company, performing at the Metropolitan Opera House which is considered the most important stage in the world.
The film begins with archival footage of a young Copeland. She grew up in underpriviledged communities and was introduced to ballet at 13, and there was an instant connection: she felt she belonged and finally had a voice. By 15, she was one of the top ballet prospects in California, placing first in the prestigious Spotlight Awards. At 17, she moved to New York to join ABT’s Studio Company.
Along with classical music and opera, ballet developed from the 15th century and evolved into a touchstone of European culture. There’s never been a black principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, at the Paris Opera Ballet, Kirov Ballet or New York Ballet; only 1% of all ballerinas make it into elite companies each year. In June 2015, Copeland became the first black woman to be promoted to prinicpal dancer in AMT’s 75-year history despite a devastating injury that nearly kept it from happening.
Copeland has something that just can’t be taught or learnt; she has stage presence, and such a fire and the talent to go the distance except she sometimes lacked focus and has self-doubt. It’s still very difficult to see a person of colour in major roles in the classical repertoire. Calssical ballet is based on fairy-tale stories and so there isn’t a black dancer, or someone stocky, as a fairy. Ballet looks at assimilation and uniformity – and that’s the issue for a black ballerina.
In 2012, Copeland was given a lead role in Stravinsky’s The Firebird; it was monumental and the entire dance world was agog. It was a historic evening but Copeland was dancing with a series of stress fractures in her left shin; her tolerance for pain was on a totally different level! (Not forgetting that pointe shoes are uncomfortable and they hurt and the toes could be bleeding throught the shoes!)
Her body was beat up well too much and after The Firebird, Copeland had to have major surgery on her left shin; the surgery involved a rod that extended to her knee. The mid-tabia stress fracture was the result of impact from jumping over and over again. Imagine the amount of wear and tear in the body!
Five months after surgery, Copeland was still facing the possibility of losing an opportunity to one of the other endless talents in ABT. But six months after surgery, she successfully performed Camille Saint-Saens’ Le Cygne (The Dying Swan), and the next day, met legendary ballerina Raven Wilkinson (soloist at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) and they did a little routine of The Ballet Ruse.
Three months later, Copeland performed Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No 4 in Italy but she suffered from a back spasm, pulled something, her sacrum felt stuck, something must be cracked and it was painful and she couldn’t breathe. Despite lingering soreness from her surgery, Copeland performed in Abu Dubai, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Australia.
For Copeland, ballet is the stuff of human life. Her ultimate goal is to bring people of all backgraounds to ballet – people who never saw themselves inside the Metropolitan Opera House and making them feel welcome.
In the summer of 2014, ABT cast Copeland in the lead of one of the most iconic ballets in the classical repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, making her the first black woman to dance the role of Odette and Odile at an elite international company.
Besides being engrossing and inspirational, this documentary is peppered with well-choreographed dance sequences and lovely music. Some examples are Massenett’s Meditation from “Thais”, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, a Schubert String Quartet and Debussy’s Un Sonata (Allegro Vivo).