By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 05, 2018 at 04:47 PM EST

In June 2015, Misty Copeland found herself in a unique position (no, not fourth, second, or fifth) — the first African-American woman promoted to principal dancer in the history of American Ballet Theatre. Now, at 36, Copeland achieves another landmark, making her movie debut in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney’s big-screen adaptation of the world’s best-known ballet, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and its source material, the E.T.A. Hoffmann story “Nutcracker and Mouse King.” Copeland calls her film role the “icing on the cake” of her recent career success.

As the Ballerina Princess, Copeland reveals the history of the Four Realms to young Clara (Mackenzie Foy) through a ballet interlude. Rather than portraying one of the classic Nutcracker characters, Copeland describes her role as that of storyteller. “I exist [in the film] just to share this story,” she explains.

The studio and producer Mark Gordon approached Copeland directly for the role; for her, saying yes required zero fancy mental footwork. “It was an incredible opportunity for the ballet world to be recognized and appreciated in a way we aren’t,” she says. “This will live on forever, and people will be able to look at me and see a brown ballerina in this movie. At some point it’s not going to be this crazy thing; it’ll be, ‘That’s what a ballerina looks like.’”

Laurie Sparham/Disney

Copeland says she was granted a significant amount of creative control, selecting her choreographer (the Royal Ballet’s Liam Scarlett) and weighing in on which portions of Tchaikovsky’s score to use. The resulting performance is a blend of traditional ballet styles typically associated with The Nutcracker and more contemporary choreography, as she pirouettes and jumps through an ornate theatrical setting — though she says she originally anticipated dancing on greenscreen. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, however, created fully realized physical sets envisioned as Victorian-era pop-up cards that bring the Four Realms to life in miniature. “I wanted to create a stage show that created an amphitheater around Misty Copeland,” says Dyas, with the ballerina “dancing through archways of huge flats as they are raised from the ground.”

Director Lasse Hallström says Copeland’s feature sequence opened his eyes to what it takes to excel as a dancer. “To be close to that magical grace was a rewarding experience, as was also [learning] the reality [of the] painstaking work that comes with doing a performance that’s so lithe and effortless.” This combination of physical strength and endurance wowed Copeland’s costars, including Foy and Keira Knightley (who plays the Sugar Plum Fairy). While both Hallström and Foy gush about Copeland’s grace, Knightley remembers a different side, encountering Copeland grappling with the long schedule. “[She was] sitting there with ice packs all over her feet,” Knightley says. “Physically I cannot imagine how strong you have to be to do that.” Copeland admits the unpredictable nature of moviemaking was her greatest (and most unexpected) challenge. While actors often jump back into a scene at a moment’s notice, dancers need warm-up time built into their schedule — something Copeland says they aren’t afforded on the average film set, but The Nutcracker took pains to accommodate. “It was much longer hours than we’re used to. And not having a real idea of what was next,” she explains. “Having the shoes on for that long, there were moments where it was like, ‘I have to ice my feet. I have to lay down and put my feet up,’ but at the same time you can’t take your costume off because you never know when you’re going to be on.”

The ballerina says she can’t wait for the world to see dancers portrayed as she knows and loves them. “Most dancers are not happy with how we’re represented [on screen]. It’s this exaggerated caricature, whether it’s overly sexualized or everyone has an eating disorder [or] there’s so much conflict and jealousy. This feels like a very pure and beautiful representation of us,” she reflects. “Even people that don’t know ballet, they know The Nutcracker, and it allows you to step outside those stereotypes.… This is an incredible opportunity to bring people into my world.”

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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

  • Movie
  • PG
  • Lasse Hallstrom
  • Joe Johnston