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Misty Copeland has defied all odds — and stereotypes — to pursue her dream of becoming a world-renowned professional ballerina.
The 33-year-old African-American from San Pedro, Calif., has, since childhood, worked toward her goal of becoming a soloist at New York’s highly regarded American Ballet Theater (ABT), dancing herself up the ranks from the studio company to corps de ballet and, now, soloist. She is the first African-American ballerina to achieve principal dancer status at the company.
Copeland proudly self-describes her race and 5-foot-2 frame as being different than the stereotypical ballerina: “I’m black, I have a large chest, I’m muscular,” she says in the documentary film A Ballerina’s Tale, which chronicles her journey from injury to recovery and success.
“I’m a black dancer — that’s who I am; it’s so much a part of my story,” she says in director-producer Nelson George‘s film, which hits theaters and VOD Oct. 14. “I didn’t fit the mold. Based on my body type, pedigree and background, I should not have been a part of one of the world’s greatest ballet companies.”
Prior to the release of the Sundance Selects and Tribeca Film Festival official selection, Copeland told The Hollywood Reporter about her journey, why she was willing to be the focus of the doc, and what she still hopes to accomplish and inspire in others.
What enticed you to want to be the focus of the documentary when you were approached? Why was it important for you?
Nelson and I met at a dinner party and became friends. After seeing his first ballet ever with me in the ballet Firebird, he decided he wanted to do something with me. He was so intrigued by the ballet world, and then I got injured. He decided to start filming my recovery process with no definitive direction of where it would go.
For me personally, once we decided that we were really working to create a documentary, I wanted to take the opportunity to give some voices to the many black women who inspired me and helped create the path I’ve danced on as a ballerina. The central story was my recovery and rise to principal dancer, but there is a side story about the history of African-American ballerinas.
Were there any scenes from A Ballerina’s Tale that you are nervous for audiences to see?
I think, as a performer, it’s a little hard to share footage of yourself dancing. To dance live in front of an audience is a very different experience. When I’ve sat in the audience at screenings of the film, I get most tense with those scenes. Knowing that I grow everyday and that I’m better now than I am in that footage, or [thinking] that people won’t like it.
You have broken barriers in the ballet world, being both an African-American and having a muscular body type. What have been the struggles and successes in representing those minorities?
I feel that the response for the most part has been extremely positive. There are many dancers, no matter their race, who have similar body types to me. With the evolution of contemporary ballet, body types change and adjust with that movement. I’m proof that you can still accomplish all it takes to do ballet and look like a ballerina with a healthy and fit body.
The response I’ve gotten as far as me speaking out so much about diversity has garnered a reaction from so many generations of black woman who say they are living out their dream through me. A career they were never allowed to envision themselves doing or accepted doing.
What do you hope this documentary shows to and inspires in audiences?
I hope people get a better understanding for what ballet is, the dedication and athleticism it takes; that people leave with an appreciation; that there is more understanding as to what a feat it is to succeed in the ballet world period, but especially as a black woman.
Are there any women that you’ve looked up to, in or out of the ballet world, that have inspired you to pursue your dreams and never give up?
Susan Fales-Hill and Raven Wilkinson. It was Susan — a successful black woman and former ABT board member, whose presence and voice in my life [came] in a critical time in my career when I needed support — that helped get me here. With Raven, it was simply learning of her existence as the first black ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, that gave me a renewed understanding of my purpose.
You have accomplished so much by the age of 33. What have you not yet accomplished that you still want to?
Getting more minority children involved, invested and educated in classical ballet.
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