Misty Copeland makes dance history as first black female soloist with American Ballet Theatre
By Jim Farber
Misty Copeland’s performances Friday and Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in American Ballet Theatre’s production of “Swan Lake,” will have special significance for the 25-year-old ballerina.
In addition to being a highly anticipated homecoming for the former child star of San Pedro Ballet, Copeland’s renditions of the “pas de trois” and dance of the “four swans” will codify her recently elevated position as the first black woman in the history of ABT to ascend to the level of soloist.
Copeland says that the promotion is even more significant because, at this time, she is the only black dancer in the company, male or female – a situation that has made her life difficult.
Copeland spoke by phone from New York City, where she was nursing “a stress reaction” of her second metatarsal, rather than accompanying ABT to Miami for a performance.
“Hopefully I’ll be fine in time to come to L.A.,” she said. “They decided the day before we were supposed to leave for Miami that I shouldn’t go. I’m just being careful with it. I caught it before it got too bad.”Compared to most would-be ballerinas, Copeland came late to the art form. She didn’t begin dancing until she was 13. However, only two years after her first lessons at the San Pedro Dance Center, Copeland took first place in the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards.
“That was the first time I ever experienced nerves,” she says. “Before that, I don’t think I was fully aware of what I was doing – it was all so new to me. That experience changed my career.”
Copeland then came under the tutelage of Diane Lauridsencq, a prominent South Bay dance teacher and former member of ABT. Lauridsen said she immediately saw Copeland’s potential.
“It was clear that she was very talented,” says Lauridsen, who has a reputation for being a stern task mistress. “She’s a freak. All the great dancers are freaks of nature. You have to have this body that’s extremely hyper-mobile and proportioned a certain way. And it was evident right away that she had that stuff. She also had extraordinary stage presence. She was kissed by God and has worked very, very hard to make use of it.”
The way Copeland sees it, becoming a member of ABT was almost inevitable. After studying with former ABT dancers, she enrolled in the company’s summer intensive classes. From there, she became a member of ABT’s junior Studio Company. Then, in 2001, Copeland was invited to join the company as a member of the corps de ballet.
What Copeland did not anticipate was the emotional stress of being singled out as a role model, combined with the cultural isolation of being the only black dancer in the company.
Copeland had become something of a Jackie Robinson of classical ballet.
“It’s felt like a long, hard struggle to get here,” she says. “It definitely wasn’t as easy as it was when I started dancing and things were just happening. Getting into the company kind of opened my eyes. I think I wasn’t as aware that I was pretty much always the only African-American girl in my class. It never really caught my eye until I got into the company. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m the only African-American woman.’ And ever since I joined, I’ve been the only one. There’s not even an African-American guy in the company.”
Copeland notes that ABT has never had a black female soloist or principal.
“They’ve never had a black woman make it past the corps de ballet. So it was kind of scary. I wondered if it could ever happen. It made me think about leaving several times. I’ve been in the company for seven years now, and I’ve watched black women come and go, auditioning, that are gorgeous, that don’t get in. And you wonder why. And you see dancers in the company that you know are not nearly as good.”
Before joining ABT, Copeland says, the question of her race never was that significant to her. But those around her, she said, knew it could be a problem.
“I think a lot of it was maybe kept away from me because I was so young,” she says. “I would go away to do these guest scenes with one of my teachers (Charles Maplecq, a former ABT dancer). I remember we went away to South Dakota. He didn’t specifically tell me, but I remember overhearing him talking to my mother, saying, ‘I’m actually really nervous to bring her here, being a black girl and taking her to this small town to do a lead role.’ Looking back on it now, oh my gosh, I never thought of that.”
Speaking from the company’s New York offices, ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, admits, “Ballet is a white man’s art. It started in the French court. So it’s going to take a long time for it to filter into other cultures. But I think the visual cliche of the all-white corps de ballet is crumbling. It’s slowly breaking down.
“Misty is an exceptional case,” says McKenzie, a former dancer. “She’s enormously talented and versatile. And that is one of the enduring qualities that will make her succeed at ABT.”
According to McKenzie, the dearth of black ballet dancers is a cultural and technical issue.
“African-Americans don’t have the kind of training that gets them far enough ahead to be dancing at this level by the time they’re 17 or 18,” he says. “That’s something we’re trying to address in our education system, to reach way out there and give everybody access to quality training. It’s not a question of this being an exclusive club. (ABT has multiple Asian and Hispanic dancers). This is going to take a generation to fix.”
Copeland is well aware of the barriers she will have to overcome.
“The ballerina is the ballet,” she says. “It’s all about the woman. She is the leading role, always. So, to see an African-American woman in that role – I don’t know if that will be accepted or if that’s what people want to see. Times have changed, but it seems very slowly in the ballet world.”