A Ballerina’s Taledirected by Nelson George is a documentary that tells the story of MistyCopeland’s post-injury return to and rise in the American Ballet Theater(George 2015). The documentary focuses specifically on Copeland’s issues ofrace and body image within the ballet community as the first black female to benamed principal dancer in the international company. George briefly touchesupon Copeland’s early life and childhood, placing most of the attention on herlife after joining the American Ballet Theater (ABT) at seventeen.
It appears thatGeorge attempts to focus solely on issues of race and body image within thecontext of ballet (“Nelson George Captures the Poise of Misty Copeland”).However this approach causes him to gloss over the other intersectional issuesCopeland has had to face. George does not further analyze these issues butsimply states that they exist (Schabas 2016). The movie neither goes in depthon Copeland’s childhood and career nor on the issues that the prima ballerinafaced. Thus, the movie fails as both a biographic documentary and a sociallyanalytic commentary. Nelson George made a clear and calculated decision tobriefly pass over the upbringing of Misty Copeland (Schabas 2016). However, hisattempt to focus on issues in the world of classical ballet falls short interms of analysis of issues of expenses, the cycle of poverty, andinstitutionalized racism, as well as other modern day proponents of thehistorical lack of color in ballet (Tobias 2015).
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While George does a goodjob of addressing the presence of race and body image issues in the world ofballet, he glosses over the complicated nature of these issues in today’s societyand fails to further analyze these oppressions even within the realm of ballet.In his documentary on MistyCopeland, Nelson George addresses the long standing history of exclusion withinballet (“Nelson George Captures the Poise of Misty Copeland”). He interviews,Victoria Rowell, a former ABT member, who cites George Balanchine, a prominentfigure in the world of ballet, as stating “the skin of a dancer should be thatof a freshly peeled apple” (George 2015, 0:19:55).
Further, he just barelytouches upon the stereotypes placed on black women in his interview with RobynGardenhire, the founder and artistic director of the City Ballet of LosAngeles. Gardenhire addresses skin color when it comes to casting saying that thequestion is whether you have to be “soft and lovely or do you have to be strongand sexy” (George 2015, 0:18:40). The “soft and lovely” roles were to be givento white dancers, while the “strong and sexy” roles, were given to blackdancers. George does not further analyze, however, the history of devaluing andhyper-sexualizing the black female body (Benard 2016). Black women are multiplyoppressed.
They have the misfortune of being both black and female. As they arelooked down upon for race, it is easy to view them in a more sexual andless-than-human animalistic nature. George further addresses racism in balletby stating “many ballet companies believe that dancers of color or muscularbody types would distract the audience” (George 2015, 0:1:53). The idea thatblack bodies would distract the audience form the art those very bodies arecreating is inherently rooted in the racist view that black bodies are notbeautiful (Hill 2002). Further it creates the notion that black bodies do notbelong in ballet (Carman 2014). It is this racism that slows Rowell’sadvancement in ballet companies with her peers (George 2015 0:20:25). While Georgeaddresses the racism in the aesthetics of ballet, he does not further analyzethe systematic oppressions that further limit black dancers. Misty Copeland states that she isfrom an underprivileged background (George 2015, 0:8:30).
This is when Georgeshould have further looked into the expenses of ballet and the economicoppression of people of color in the United States. In the US, there exists “institutionalizedpatterns of unequal control over and distribution of a society’s valued goodsand resources such as land, property, money, employment, education, healthcare,and housing” (McCann & Kim 2016). Dancers of color are often limited due tothe expenses of ballet and the oppression and inequality of this country thatplace them in a cycle of poverty and institutionalized racism (Carman 2014). Dueto institutionalized racism, people of color are historically known to bepassed over for employment in favor of a white candidate (Collins and Bilge,2016). They tend to be limited to lower-wage jobs and thus are forced intolow-socioeconomic standings.
They thus live in areas of low-income familieswith limited funding for extracurriculars. This means that children in familiesof color do not have access to ballet programs based on affordability. MistyCopeland was able to begin ballet at the age of thirteen due to a class at herlocal Boys and Girls Club (“Misty Copeland”). By leaving out this detail,George neglects to address the role economic oppression plays in the accessdancers of color have to the proper training and dance world.The most in depth look at the issueof racism comes from Brenda Dixon Gottschild, the author of The Black Dancing Body. In herinterview, Gottschild states that ballet and the symphony orchestra “are someof the last bastions of white supremacy” and that the casting directors “don’tknow that’s a problem they don’t realize that…they are the lackeys of racism”(George 2015, 0:21:10).
Gottschild acknowledges the connection of racism inballet to the deeper issue of white supremacy in society. However, the castingdirectors’ failure to cast black dancers is not the only hold of whitesupremacy. George’s take on racism in ballet would have benefited from not onlylooking at the white aesthetic limitations artistic directors place but alsothe deeper role of white supremacy and inequality place on people of coloreconomically to keep them out of ballet.Further, George fails to take intoaccount the role of gender.
Black male principal dancers in American ballettheaters existed before Misty Copeland (Phillips 2016). While George made itapparent the aesthetics of ballet favor white dancers, his emphasis on racismfurther failed to address the larger effect being black has on women than onmen. Historically, women have been judged more based on their appearance due topatriarchal standards limiting their worth to their ability to please men (Hill2002). Further, racist devaluation of black men and women create an animalisticview of African Americans. This is more problematic for black women as they aresupposed to be dainty and ethereal as ballerinas. Black males get away withsome of this discrimination in the sense that the patriarchy defines males asmore harsh and strong beings. In other words, black female dancers are at afurther disadvantage as their skin is not viewed as feminine enough.
George also makes a point to bringup the issues of body image in the world of ballet. Specifically, Deirdre Kelly,author of Ballerina, in her interviewattributes the “skinny ideal” of ballet to George Balanchine (George 2015, 12:30).Balanchine’s vision of a dancer called for very thin, flat-chested body types.As Kelly states, this ideal can be detrimental to a ballerina’s health.
It isthis ideal that ABT placed upon Copeland when telling her to lose weightpost-puberty (George 2015, 0:12:00). Copeland’s encounter with this idealaffected her self-esteem causing her to binge eat as she felt so negativelyabout herself (George 2015, 14:30). However, George’s approach to body imageseemed rather superficial and lacked depth. George could have furtherelaborated on body image in line with racism as it was not believed thatAfrican Americans had the body type to be ballerinas (Carman 2014). Georg also could have furtherelaborated on the physical and mental health effects of the pressure to bethin. Kelly briefly mentions the inability to menstruate as a side effect ofbeing very thin (George 2015, 12:30). The pressure to be thin, paired with theconstant movement in front of a mirror, decreases the self-esteem of ballerinas,as with Misty (Radell 2012). George however glosses over the severity of eatingdisorders in the world of ballet, perhaps in an attempt to keep the film’s”composure” (Seibert 2015).
Copeland briefly mentions a feeling of “sinking”and desperation that arose as she did not know how to handle her body. Thesefeelings are prevalent in when face with body image issues in the dance worldand thus are very important to dancers’ mental health (Radell 2012). This isimportant as there appears to be a lack of proper support and resources formental health issues within the dance community (Washington 2017). George didnot only need to draw attention to the “skinny ideal” in ballet but also to thehealth effects it has on dancers and the improper regard for those issues.What George’s documentary succeedsin doing is displaying the importance of Misty Copeland’s rise in the representationof black women. When Copeland lands the role of the “Firebird” she makes wavesgaining the lead not only as a non-principal dancer but also as a black woman.There is not “this woman with her breasts out and arched back…that’s a curvyblack woman on the front of the MET” (George 2015 0:30:50). George succeeds inpainting Copeland as a trailblazer in the ballet world as a black ballerina whostands out when uniformity is valued over individuality (George 2015, 0:22:30).
Representation is important in creating role models for children of color.Seeing other people of color succeed provides a sense of validation in what youare doing and creates a feeling of attainability. Copeland faces this as shereads an article calling out the lack of diversity in ballet entitled “Whereare all the Black Swans?” (George 2015, 0:17:10). The lack of representation causes Copeland toquestion herself and her motives, stating “Why am I doing what I’m doing?There’s no hope” (George 2015, 0:17:23). This brief section of the moviehighlights just how important black representation is in the forward movementagainst racism. George further emphasizes the importance of representation inthe scene with Copeland and former ballerina Raven Wilkinson. Copeland recountsthe first time she saw Wilkinson dance stating that she cried because she didnot know a black ballerina of her caliber even existed (George 2015, 0:54:00).Through Copeland’s expression of the importance of representation in hercareer, George solidifies the importance Copeland herself has now as a blackballerina.
George also succeeds in capturingbrief moments where Copeland addresses the importance of talking about racismand black bodies in ballet. In her opening lines Copeland states, “I think thatpeople think that sometimes I focus too much on the fact that I’m a blackdancer. But that’s so much of who I am” (George 2015, 0:2:10).
Being silentwhen it comes to issues of race is a privilege held only by white people.People of color constantly feel the oppression of being colored in society thatvalues whiteness. Further, Copeland stresses the importance of talking aboutrace as it “forces people to confront issues” (George 2015, 0:54:15). Peopletend to be uncomfortable when talking about issues of race. It is thisdiscomfort however that should encourage discussion and change. Perhaps the most prominent line inthe film comes from Misty Copeland herself as she essentially summarizes whatshe has endured as a black ballerina, stating that people “don’t understand whata feat it is being a black woman” (George 2015, 0:2:30). In this very lineGeorge highlights how Copeland manages to call out racism, sexism, and the lackof understanding of these issues that arise from differing positionalities.
George succeeds in displaying the fact that people tend to be blind tooppressions they do not face. This is furthered by Gottschild’s aforementionedstatement regarding the ignorance of artistic directors in the role they playin white supremacy. George thus clearly conveys the fact that one’spositionality biases the way they see social issues.George’s success in the movie comesfrom the subject matter herself (Seibert 2015).
Misty isa strong, driven, black dancer with a story worth telling. George however skimsover this story in an attempt to iterate her importance as a different figurein the ballet world. By praising her importance however, George neglects toanalyze the deeper causes that make Copeland such an anomaly in the ballet industryin the first place. George fails to look at the role of poverty andinstitutionalized racism that blocks black dancers from even entering the danceworld, let alone getting cast.
Further, George neglects to analyze body imagein lie with race as well as mental health and its stigma. Essentially, whatGeorge succeeds in doing is drawing attention to a symptom of the much deeperissues of inequality and oppression in this country.