The works of people like Norman McLaren (Pas de Deux, Ballet Adagio, Narcissus) and Wim Wenders (Pina) have shown that ballet can be useful subject matter for beautiful cinema. Unfortunately, for some strange reason, this pleasurable quality somehow cannot find its way into documentaries. The most recent example of this failure to showcase ballet in the genre is A Ballerina’s Tale, Nelson George’s portrait of noted ballerina Misty Copeland – the first African-American woman to be made principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.
Copeland is a fascinating person and more than deserving of a biographical documentary, but the problem is that the film is a saddening bore; there is no stylistic flair to it. George follows Copeland on a tour, where she discusses a variety of topics; including the inherent racism in dance culture, the desire or compulsion to remain skinny, and the chronic injuries that come with dancing ballet. These are great topics to tackle and talk about, and there are more than enough interesting people in the film who could take on these topics. Nelson George, instead, approves of a generic approach: talking heads, observation (one particular sequence includes one of Copeland’s friends discussing their fast food intake for far too long), and the occasional dance sequence. To the film’s credit, the dance sequences are gorgeous, but it has less to do with the filmmaker and more to do with his subject.
At the end of the film, I was glad to have been familiarized with Copeland, but this review isn’t about the subject; it’s about the film. And, honestly, her Wikipedia page and a few YouTube videos would probably give movie goers the same amount of information as this film does. If you are one of those rare ballet fiends, you may like this film and, to you, I say give it a try. But, if you are interested in using A Ballerina’s Tale as a lesson in ballet, stay home and watch Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux instead.
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Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam