Feminist Film Review: "A Ballerina’s Tale" Falls Flat

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FEMINIST FILM REVIEW-2Introducing Feminist Film Reviews by Dream, Girl’s tour director, Diana Matthews. Diana's passion is to advocate for and highlight amazing women in film, and we’ll be featuring her expert opinion in this new bi-weekly series. This week, Diana will be reviewing A Ballerina's Tale: The Incredible Rise of Misty Copeland, a documentary by Nelson George. Check back every second Wednesday to read the latest on what she's watching and reviewing next![divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]T[/dropcap]he story of the first African-American prima ballerina is one I never expected to feel ambivalent about. But after watching Nelson George’s documentary A Ballerina’s Tale: The Incredible Rise of Misty Copeland, I was left feeling uninspired by a film I was ready to be excited about.

Copeland was named the first African-American Principal Dancer for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 2015, marking an outstanding achievement for the trailblazing ballerina. The documentary chronicles Copeland’s tremendous rise to superstardom and how she overcame physical and racial discrimination to ultimately realize her dream.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap]n ballet, there’s a long tradition of men telling female dancers how they should look, perform and act both onstage and off. American choreographer George Balanchine decreed the ideal physical body type for ballerinas in the 1930s and 40s, leading to the waif-like, white dancers we’ve become accustomed to in the art form. In the film, George discusses the profound struggles Copeland faced as the only African-American dancer in a company of 80 at ABT but it’s hard to overlook that the film continues the long lineage of men providing commentary on the experiences of women in the industry.

A Ballerina’s Tale demonstrates the pitfalls that can occur when women’s stories are not told using our own voices. Women close to Copeland both personally and professionally discuss their viewpoints on the dancer but ultimately, her own voice is rendered nearly silent.

Copeland’s dedication to and passion for ballet are palpable and the film gives audiences access to both a behind-the-scenes and public portrayal of her story. From the look on her face when she comes off stage, to an Under Armour billboard in Manhattan portraying Copeland as an athlete who willed her way to the top, we’re offered a glimpse into how hard she works to push through boundaries and pursue something that goes far beyond her own goals and aspirations.

But that’s where Copeland’s experiences end, and the director’s interpretation takes over. It’s in the quiet moments in the film– in elevators, backstage between the curtains before the music cue, at cafes in and amidst the hustle and bustle of Rome– that we’re left to speculate on what Copeland is thinking, feeling, processing, and planning. We don’t know how she feels because the producers don’t give her an opportunity to tell us.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]W[/dropcap]hen asked about race in the film, Copeland articulates the need to talk about as much as possible to confront the issues that still marginalize all minorities. But in the documentary, race and discrimination are dealt with in a defensive and unproductive manner, as the deeper meaning of Copeland’s presence and assertion at ABT is lost in a disjointed examination of body image and race politics. Copeland’s views on race are edited into soundbites, leaving the audience with only a surface-level understanding of her perspective.

When conventions are overturned and refuted, it is to the benefit of everyone, not to the detriment of the art form.

The conventions set out by Ballanchine set the standard for a ballet dancer’s physical appearance and were seen as necessary to bring the choreography to life. What Copeland and other African-American ballerinas before her have proven time and time again is how problematic these rules are– that ultimately didn’t need to exist in the first place. The documentary does assert this argument but it would have been stronger if Copeland had been given more space to articulate it herself through a more thoughtful interview in the film.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]M[/dropcap]isty Copeland’s refusal to be marginalized by these standards demonstrates, beyond all doubt, that different types of bodies can express themselves in the discipline of ballet without needing to fill a certain physical quota upheld solely for the sake of tradition.

When more people are included, without a drop in the standards, any art form can progress out of stagnation. In this case, Copeland’s success gives little girls, of all races, the hope that if they develop the technical aptitude for the dance, they will not be discriminated against based on skin color or body type.

This is the tremendous gift Misty Copeland has offered the world, and she did not get the documentary she deserves.