From rough beginnings in San Pedro, CA to dancing center stage in New York, Misty Copeland’s rise to fame reads just like the plot of a fairy tale ballet. Nelson George’s documentary A Ballerina’s Tale, which premieres Feb. 8 on PBS, follows Copeland's climb up the ladder to become the first African American female principal in the entire 75-year history of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT).
The dancer has been very vocal about her status as a lone African-American principal in a company of 80 dancers.
"I felt alone in a world that had become my home," Copeland says in the documentary, which chronicles her recovery from a career-threatening injury after her lead performance in Igor Stravinsky's Firebird to her triumphant return to the ABT stage. "I think that people think that sometimes I focus too much on the fact that I'm a black dancer. I've heard it from former principal dancers and major ballet companies who complain about my presence and my voice."
"I think that Misty Copeland is an extraordinary artist -- not because she is black, but because she is gifted and has worked very hard to refine her craft," says Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre based in San Francisco's Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood. "But the most important point for me is that Misty Copeland's story exposes how much work we need to do to diversify the field."
Bay Area Ballet companies such as Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Oakland Ballet Company and Silicon Valley Ballet include members from different racial backgrounds in their lineups. But diversity is still a larger issue in the ballet community, says Daphne Lee, a former member of the Oakland Ballet Company.
"I think many directors now want to diversify the company to reflect where they are, but many sponsors and donors are still against that because they don’t want to mess with tradition," says Lee. "Misty shed light on the issue for people who are not of color. She's the platform for our generation."
Maurya Kerr, founder of dance company tiny pistol and previous member of Alonzo King LINES Ballet, says she believes Copeland provides an exceptional model for aspiring dancers of color, but hopes discussion strays away from the “othering” of Copeland’s race.
"I long for Copeland the freedom to simply focus on her craft and not be a self-appointed or publicly-anointed spokesperson for blackness," Kerr says.
A Ballerina's Tale, directed by Nelson George, airs Monday, Feb. 8, at 10 pm on KQED.