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'A Ballerina's Tale' review: Graceful portrait of Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland in the documentary "A Ballerina's Tale."

Misty Copeland in the documentary "A Ballerina's Tale." Credit: AP / Oskar Landi

For any classical ballet dancer, the enemies are time, age, injury and gravity. For Misty Copeland they also included tradition -- the tradition of the reed-like-bordering-on-emaciated body type and the skin tone "like a freshly peeled apple" (as George Balanchine allegedly recommended). Copeland can't do much about time and age, though at certain moments of "A Ballerina's Tale" she does seem to defy gravity. Tradition? She has killed it off, like Odette in "Swan Lake."

As anyone interested in the film will probably be aware, Copeland was named a principal dancer this past June by the American Ballet Theatre, a first for a black dancer even though -- as someone in the film observes -- many people probably already thought she was a principal ballerina. She's among New York's more prominent artists, and virtually the face of the ABT.

She's also a charming subject for director Nelson George. The noted writer has been following her for several years, which makes it interesting to speculate what "A Ballerina's Tale" was going to be, given its evident resentment at the dance world's long-held belief in a lily-white aesthetic.

Copeland's career arc paralleled the making of the film. As is the case with many a first-rate documentary, the director knew enough to follow the story he was given.

Copeland also represents something huge to girls with dreams -- one of the better scenes in the film is a virtual throwaway moment at the stage door at Lincoln Center, where Copeland is met by a cheering throng of girls, many of color, who see her as a heroine. And with good reason: Another prime moment takes place in the office of her orthopedic surgeon, sometime in 2012-13, before Copeland had radical and successful reconstructive surgery for multiple stress fractures in her left tibia. The doctor asks her to throw her leg up on the examination table, which she does effortlessly, displaying a limb like a bird's. Only in the world of ballet can someone who looks like Misty Copeland not be the physical ideal. But now she is.

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