While snuggled up on my couch, I hit play on the Misty Copeland documentary Netflix has been pushing for the past few weeks.
Misty Copeland, subject of “A Ballerina’s Tale,” is the first black principal desk at the ABT (American Ballet Theatre) Company. Her Under Amour commercial went viral a year or so ago. Here it is:
I’d seen the commercial when it first aired around 2013. I couldn’t quite remember the content, but I had vague memories of a triumphant underdog story, someone who had told the world, “I can!” when the world kept saying, “You can’t.”
It’s been about a month since I watched the documentary, and I can’t tell you what it covered, and I definitely don’t have the warm-fuzzies like I did after watching the commercial. Remembering the documentary leaves me pretty ambivalent about the Misty Copeland story. So what did the commercial do that the hour long documentary didn’t? Let’s break it down.
In the commercial, we’re introduced to the ballerina while tentative music plays. As a rejection letter is read, we see her slowly rise onto her toes. So while we’re being told she can’t do something, we’re seeing her do it. She’s metaphorically rising up. The rejection letter takes apart her body as we watch it. The viewer sees a graceful, powerful dancer while we hear a young girl’s voice read why this same body is wrong. The words contradict the reality we’re seeing, and then we hear this final, devastating line: “At thirteen, you are too old to be considered.” Our emotions take over. We’re righteously indignant on behalf of the child who was told she cannot. Instantly, we’re cheering for the dancer before us.
A slow pan brings us into her mind. It feels like we’re moving from the reality of the quiet, simple practice room into what she sees and dreams. We get the feeling of a stage and bright spotlights. We see her move through different ballet moves, some slowed down to accent the grace of her body. We get the feeling that this mental image is her drive, what pushes her to keep working even after she was told no. It’s inter cut with her dancing in a space reminiscent of the practice room to underscore this mental doubling–what’s really happening, and what she’s working towards. Meanwhile, the music has become more complex, less tentative. It reflects the drive of the dancer. And then, just as the music begins to still once more, we see a wide shot of the space the dancer’s been working in. It’s an actual stage. She is where she’s dreamt of being for so long. The text on the screen reveals that this is Misty Copeland, a (then) Ballerina Soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. The final text shows the product (Under Armour) and the tag, I will what I want.
This commercial gives us more than the hour plus documentary by showing us what Copeland was pushing against (the perception that her body was wrong) and fighting for (a career on the stage). By showing her in practice attire both on stage and in the studio, it accented her drive and determination. It gave the feeling that this woman was dancing everywhere she went. Every moment of her life was filled by dance.
“A Ballerina’s Tale” never gets imparts the same feeling that failure might happen, or that it would have devastating consequences for the dancer.It spends chunks of time talking about Copeland’s anxieties and that she was the wrong “type” for classical ballet. At one point, they mention that she ate a box of doughnuts a night out of stress and that she felt out of place in the ballet world. But then it moved on. We don’t see Copeland herself moving on or moving passed it. The struggle simple goes away. Where the commercial hovers around that feeling of desire and motivation, the drive to prove yourself, the documentary skims past it. It feels like the documentary is constantly searching for a story that’s just out of its reach. It discusses the history of black dancers and the importance of Copeland in the black community, but it never talks about Copeland’s own feelings about this. It does delved into them beyond a few pat sentences here or there. It never achieves that feeling of determination that the commercial achieves in seconds. As a viewer, it looks like Misty Copland has setbacks, but that, for the most part, she’s on a rocket ship pointed up. She’s going all the way. When she finally achieves her dream of being a principal, it’s with a feeling of, “Of course she did,” instead of joyous victory.
Part of this is because Misty Copeland is a cheerful person herself. I do not doubt for one second her dedication or the difficulties she’s faced in her career, but I don’t feel them. In general, her interviews seem to skirt the trials and tribulations of becoming a top dancer, and instead focus on the things that went right. The things that went right don’t make me care. The things that go wrong make me care.
The one time when it seems unclear if she’ll be able to continue, when she’s eating doughnuts and feeling out of place, external forces swoop in and provide her with a mentor to help her get back on track. In real life, this is awesome. I’m glad someone made sure this talented person didn’t burn out. But it doesn’t make for good storytelling, and it blurs Copeland’s own drive and dedication with someone else’s success. Copeland herself never addresses how she moved past this period in her life. I got the feeling she wasn’t really sure herself.
Without seeing the self-doubt and experiencing the world pushing against Copeland as she pushed back, there were no stakes. I got the feeling that, had Copeland failed, she would have gone home and opened a dance studio or, in some other way, made dance a part of her life. As a viewer, I didn’t feel like there would be devastating emotional or personal consequences. Without understanding how low she could fall, I could not appreciate how high she rose. I needed to know what was at stake. In the commercial, I knew: her entire perception of her self. Was she wrong about herself, or was she a dancer? And I wanted her to be a dancer.
That audience participation, getting me, the viewer, emotionally invested in the story being told is the difference between remembering something from two years ago, and forgetting what I saw last night.