At first Misty Copeland wasn’t eager to be the subject of a feature documentary. It wasn’t like she needed more publicity.
At age 33, the Kansas City-born Copeland is among America’s best-known ballerinas.
She has risen from the corps of the American Ballet Theatre to dance the most challenging roles in the company’s classical ballet repertoire.
What’s more, she is a black woman, a rarity in the upper echelon of the dance world — the first African-American principal dancer in ABT’s 76-year history.
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Copeland’s fame and approachable personality have led to countless print and TV profiles, commercial endorsements and two volumes of autobiography.
So before she got on board with the new documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale” (it opens Friday at the Tivoli), Copeland wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be just more of the same.
“I didn’t want this to be my life story,” Copeland said in a telephone interview from the ABT’s New York headquarters. She had spent the day rehearsing a Twyla Tharp piece that she danced Saturday night.
“My story has been told. I’m past this being just about me. What I wanted was a platform to share stories that most people don’t know about, stories about how difficult it is to succeed in the classical ballet world as a black woman.”
Growing up in San Pedro, Calif., Copeland said, she knew nothing about the role of black women in the history of classical dance. Groundbreakers like Janet Collins, Lauren Anderson, Aesha Ash and Raven Wilkinson (who appears with Copeland in the film) were never spoken of.
“Basically I didn’t know anything. In fact, as a young dancer I didn’t even realize that race was an issue in the dance world. It wasn’t until I was an adult living on my own in New York that it came to my attention. Then it hit me all at once, and the more I learned the angrier I got that most people — even dance fans — don’t know this history.
“These women never had the opportunity to enjoy the success they made possible for black dancers today.”
Copeland found a sympathetic ear in director Nelson George. His original idea was to document Copeland’s recovery process as she went through several surgeries to repair stress fractures in her leg bones that threatened to end her career.
But he quickly grabbed onto the idea of celebrating African-American ballerinas and of challenging the notion — the film traces it back to famed choreographer George Balanchine — that ballerinas should be painfully thin (a profile that Copeland happily rejects).
The film also became a study of the physicality of dance and the tremendous pain most dancers endure for their art.
“Pain is just part of the deal,” Copeland said. “We’re always working through pain, we’re constantly striving to find balance in our bodies. The difference between a dancer and an athlete is that dancers have no down time. There’s no such thing as resting between games. A ballerina’s technique is so minute and refined that even in the off season you have to be on it all the time or you lose it.
“Dance becomes our lives. For a lot of us it’s all we know. You have to give all of yourself to make it to this level. There’s no halfway.”
Most dancers live such an intense, insular existence that they end up dating other dancers. There’s no time to experience life outside the dance world.
Copeland said that she got lucky when she met her fiance, lawyer Olu Evans, early in her New York sojourn. “A Ballerina’s Tale” doesn’t dwell on Copeland’s personal life, but in the last shot of the film she greets and embraces Evans on a city sidewalk.
“I’m glad I found him before life got really hectic.”
To read more features and reviews from Robert W. Butler, go to ButlersCinemaScene.com.
New this week
▪ “The Second Mother”: In this Brazilian effort from Anna Muylaert, the unspoken class barriers within a well-to-do home are thrown into disarray when the housekeeper’s estranged daughter suddenly appears. At the Tivoli.
▪ Film Fest Shorts: Presented at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the B&B KC Northland 14, this program offers short films by area directors: “Gotcher” (Bruce Branit), “Job Well Done” (Jordan Karasek), “Not a Friend of the Zoo” (Erin Zimmerman), “Tipping Point” (Megan Flynn), “The Girls” (Michelle Davidson), “Dispatch” (Caleb Hermann) and “Missing Persons” (Chance Williams).