Misty Copeland’s meteoric rise in the world of ballet has catapulted the dancer to pop star status. Just this past summer, she made history by becoming the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the famed American Ballet Theater.
Copeland is justly basking in the glow of her success and utilizing her story to inspire young African-American girls who want to break into an art form that’s historically suffered from institutionalized racism and body-shaming. But just two years ago, this trailblazer wasn’t sure if she’d ever even grace a stage again due to a devastating shin injury. The uphill battle Copeland fought to recovery is the subject of a new film, A Ballerina’s Tale, directed by longtime veteran cultural critic/filmmaker Nelson George.
In addition to getting a behind-the scenes look at Copeland’s grueling work ethic and perseverance, the film delves into her journey from a tough childhood to icon. EBONY.com caught up with Copeland and George to discuss the new film, the lack of diversity in the world of classical ballet, and the unexpected historic ending that preceded her American Ballet Theater principal dancer achievement.
EBONY: Nelson, you’ve built a career exploring the history of Black music and pop culture. What drew you to the world of ballet?
Nelson George: It was really meeting Misty and her manager at a cocktail party. I went to see Misty at the MET. It was huge, and her picture was in front of the building. It struck me that night that I had never been to a real ballet at the MET. That night turned out to be really profound. She revealed to me afterwards that she was dancing in pain. I was introduced to this world of Black women dancers, many of whom had been mentoring Misty. This happened in May or June of 2012. It was another four months before the idea of making a film came up.
Within the realm of Black culture, I think Misty had a unique place. Her injury and coming back from it made it a film that wasn’t just about a Black girl doing ballet. It’s a human story that asks several questions. Will she come back? Will she be able to dance at the same level? It had real drama, and from a storytelling point of view, it’s a great story. The thing was, we had no ending.
That’s the beauty of this film, because it turned out that the ending was something none of us could have expected. The goal was hopefully to go back on stage, and that would have been triumphant enough. For her to do Swan Lake, that was crazy. The Under Armour endorsement and the bestselling novel [Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina] all happened while we were working on the film. I really believe sometimes you have to go down to go up.
EBONY: Misty, what was your reaction when Nelson came to you with the idea for the film?
Misty Copeland: We had become friends, and he kinda pitched different ideas to me about filming me. I was game. He said we can capture this incredible vulnerable moment to getting back on stage. I didn’t really think twice about it. I thought it could also be an opportunity for me to say a lot of the things I wanted to say. It could be a platform that could potentially be seen by an audience outside of the classical ballet world.
I wanted to use that opportunity to share and educate people on the history of Black ballet ballerinas. That was very important to me. I didn’t want it to be all about me and my life. I wanted there to be a side story to educate people on classical ballet. How difficult it is to exist, that we are athlete and artist. We have injuries. People don’t see the hard side of being a ballerina. They just see this beautiful and effortless thing, and they assume it’s easy and cute. I hate when people say it’s cute!
NG: It is far from cute. They are powerful athletes. The scene of you taking classes in Italy… wow! The stuff that Misty does is incredible. She makes it look so easy, it’s scary. My running joke was that one day, she is going to run across the stage and I’m going to pick her up. No way am I capable of doing that, and only after you’ve seen the amount of work and preparation can you appreciate that. I think the film demystifies ballet for people and sees it as an art form that requires athletic ability. It’s unique in that way. Actors and singers can be out of shape, but they can’t do that. I want people to look at this and think, “wow, they are cock diesel.”
EBONY: Misty, were you ever anxious or hesitant to document this very difficult time in your life recovering from your injury?
MC: No, not at all. I was so focused on what I was doing that Nelson being there wasn’t an issue. I knew him, so it wasn’t annoying, and I never felt like I was revealing too much. It felt very organic. I think it’s important to share this side, for people to understand what we go through. In my mind during that time I was just so determined, so I never let myself fell defeated, especially if Nelson was around.
NG: I never doubted that she would get back on stage.
EBONY: When you started dancing at 13, were you aware of the dearth of Black ballerinas?
MC: No, I wasn’t at all. I happen to be really good at it, and someone literally plucked me and brought me to this ballet class. I fell in love with it, and my goal since then was to be a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater. The color of my skin wasn’t something that ever came up in the ballet world.
At the same time, I was never shown a Black ballerina. At that moment, I wasn’t really aware of it or even thinking of it. When I became an adult and I was aware of what was going on around me, that is when I realized there aren’t Black dancers that make it at this level.
EBONY: Was the lack of diversity a motivator to excel?
MC: I think at a certain point it gave me an added boost. Learning about Black dancers that came before me pushed me to work even harder. I always said I never knew when there was going to be another Black women at American Ballet Theater to make it to this level, so I’m going to work as hard as I can to break this barrier.
EBONY: Nelson, were you aware of the lack of Black ballerinas?
NG: When I heard of Misty being a soloist at ABT, it was a big deal. I figured if this is a big deal, there must not be a lot other Black dancers at these White companies. [I] did some basic research and it was true. It was easy to recognize she is very, very special.
EBONY: You’ve examined race in relation to the music and pop culture world. How does it differ in the classical ballet world, and is it easier or harder to navigate?
NG: Oh, it’s absolutely harder. If you want to be Puffy or Berry Gordy, there is a role model. I think the analogy that works with Misty is the one of Spike Lee. When he came out, there were Black directors, but none considered an auteur. Spike quickly became one of the best directors in the world within his two or three movies. All these other people came up because Spike exists. That is what Misty is doing in an art form that is still considered very White. Her real impact and legacy will really be felt over 10 years.
EBONY: Do you think you are doing for ballet what Tiger Woods did for golf or the Williams sisters have done for tennis by introducing a new demographic to ballet?
MC: It doesn’t fell that heavy to me. It feels like an effortless thing that I want to do. It’s always been a part of me. I know there are a lot of eyes on me now from young girls, and it makes me so proud. The only Black woman examples aren’t Rihanna and Beyoncé. It makes me proud that I am a classical ballerina and they can look at me and see another way to succeed. That is setting a new standard.