Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Misty Copeland's Swan Lake

Misty Copeland performing in Swan Lake (photo courtesy of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre)

When the curtain rose on Misty Copeland’s recent performance of Swan Lake in New York on the afternoon of June 24 it was my intention that the first sentence of my review would contain the word historic because, besides the fact that the dancer was in command of her technique and had the capacity crowd of 4,000 cheering fans believing unreservedly in her ability to appear white swan vulnerable as much as black swan strong, that epoch-defining adjective would just about sum up the importance of the occasion. But in the two weeks since the 32-year old ballerina became the first dancer of colour to perform the dual role of Odette-Odile at the Metropolitan Opera House, more groundbreaking events have happened to the point that I will now need to be repeating myself. Call it a welcome burden.

Almost exactly a week to the day that Copeland made her star turn in Swan Lake, dancing opposite the electrifying ABT dancer James Whiteside in the role of Prince Siegfried, her enlightened artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, promoted her to principal dancer, making her the first black woman to hold that vaunted position at ABT in its 75-year history. Stella Abrera, a Filipina who is a 19-year veteran of ABT was also promoted to principal, another company first. But given the long and strained history of race relations in the U.S. it is the Copeland, who is of African-American and Italian-German descent, who has been more dominating the headlines. Her promotion is historic. To put it into context, Copeland is to ballet what Billie Holiday was to jazz: an artist who is breaking down the colour barrier. Ballet is one of the few art forms, or actually maybe the only one left, where discrimination based on colour is still widely practised as an expression of established aesthetics. There have been a handful of past exceptions: Arthur Mitchell rose to be a principal dancer at New York City Ballet in the 1960s, for instance, and Kevin Pugh enjoyed similar status of prestige at the National Ballet of Canada in the 1980s. But male dancers of colour have typically fared better historically than their similarly hued ballerinas because black men in ballet are read as powerfully virile while female dancers of colour are read as earthy, sultry, erotic.

Black ballerinas, in other words, have been perceived as not readily conforming to the feminine ideal as espoused by an art form that since the Romantic era has placed a high premium on ethereality, lightness and, yes, whiteness. Iconic works like Giselle (1841) and Swan Lake (1895), what most people think of when they think ballet, have made a virtue of the ballet blanc, or all-white ballet in which the lead ballerinas are winged creatures of the air, gossamer fine and as adrift as clouds. Dancers will typically dust themselves over in white powder to enhance the key illusion of born-again innocence associated with these works. Black skin has been too hard to camouflage and the black body too hard to disguise as anything but bodily present for black women to ascend to the highest ranks, or so the argument typically goes. But now that thinking will have to change in light of the Copeland’s promotion. There just won’t be the same excuses. If a dancer is talented, regardless of her colour, she will have to be allowed to rise on the basis of that talent. This is Copeland’s biggest achievement to date. And it is, let’s say it again, historic.

(photo courtesy of

For many who have followed her story, Copland is the underdog who has struggled and at long last been vindicated. At 32 she is old by ballet’s exacting standards (the average age of retirement for dancers in Canada and U.S. is now 29 according to a recent industry survey) and so her victory was never certain. And yet she remains a dancer to watch, and precisely because she operates outside the mould. Not only is she dark skinned, she is busty, muscular and voluptuous, a new type of ballerina for our more body-conscious times. Her difference is what has helped her stand out, and for all the right reasons. She is a dancer in pointe shoes who has won the popular vote. Audiences love her, and this bodes well not just for her and her premiere dance company but for ballet as a whole. It’s no exaggeration to say that Copeland is single-handedly creating an aura of excitement around ballet not experienced since the defections of high-profile dancers Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Alexander Godunov and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1960s and 1970s. “The first 21st-century dancer to cross over into bonafide celebrity territory,” as industry leader Dance Magazine declared last week as news of Copeland’s promotion went viral.

The buzz has been building since last July when U.S. sportswear brand Under Armour featured Copeland in its I Will I Want ads aimed specifically at female consumers. In the video portion of the campaign, Copeland is seen rising majestically on pointe, her muscles elongating and engaging before the viewers’ eyes, while an invisible narrator reads a real-life rejection letter enumerating everything wrong with her less-than-ideal body type for ballet. Considering the success Copeland is now enjoying, and on the basis of hard work and talent – make no doubt about that – the put-down is deliciously ironic. Inadvertently, the anonymous letter writer has scripted a scenario in which the dancer who has since risen to the top of her profession, defying all sorts of odds, has emerged as the heroine of a story to which anyone who has ever been spurned can easily relate. Copeland’s status as the people’s ballerina was cemented in the weeks leading up to her game-changing performance in Swan Lake. Copeland graced the cover of Time Magazine, the first dancer to do so in decades, and was the subject of detailed profiles on 60 Minutes, in Vanity Fair and the documentary film, A Ballerina’s Tale, which had its world premiere at TriBeCa film festival on April 19, attracting a sold-out audience after the Wall Street Journal named it one of the film’s to watch. (I am in the film as a dance critic putting Copeland’s achievements in context). Earlier this week, it was announced that later this summer ABT’s first black principal dancer will make her Broadway debut performing in On the Town during a special two-week run, Aug. 25 to Sept. 6. The world’s most talked about ballerina is definitely on a roll. But it’s not quite an overnight success story.

Since joining ABT as a 19-year old member of the corps de ballet in 2001, Copeland has been toiling tirelessly to prove herself worthy of the title of principal dancer which only one other African-American dancer before her has achieved, Lauren Anderson of the Houston Ballet who was promoted to ballet’s top rank 25 years ago in 1990. Copeland has the talent and the stage presence: big jumps, a supple arch and full wattage smile on top of tireless energy. McKenzie first showcased that winning combination on the international stage when in 2007 he pushed her to compete in the Erik Bruhn Prize in Toronto and then made her a soloist, only the second African-American dancer to hold that position, which is one rung below principal, at ABT in two decades. The record will show that McKenzie has had his eye on her all along and where he could he gave her opportunities, which in the ballet world also translates as making her work hard. He greenlighted Prince’s request to feature Copeland in his Crimson and Clover video and subsequent 2010 stadium tour in which Copeland danced before hundreds of thousands in Nice and Madison Square Gardens on top of his piano. Back at ABT, Copeland soon after began dancing above her rank. In 2012 she was one of three ballerinas rotating in the lead of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s updated version of fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Her star was definitely on the rise.

Except, Copeland sustained a near career-ending injury while dancing the Ratmansky ballet; she now dances with a steel plate in her leg. But neither injury nor an impecunious upbringing living in motels as one of six children born to a mother with a string of romantic partners has ever swayed her from wanting to rise to the top of her profession. It’s a goal she passionately articulates in her 2014 memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina: “My fears are that it could be another two decades before another black woman is in the position that I hold with an elite ballet company. That if I don't rise to principal, people will feel I have failed them,” wrote Copeland in her book. She now can lay those fears to rest. The sense of history in the making is no doubt what caused a matinee performance of Swan Lake, scheduled during the middle of the work week and when school had yet to end for the summer, to be sold out months in advance. More than 4,000 tickets had been sold and to one of the most racially diverse audiences ever to attend an ABT performance in New York. The only one to rival it was the one that had gathered at the Met for Romeo and Juliet just a week earlier, on June 16, and again the attraction was Copeland, making her debut as Juliet. That, too, was historic.

Talking about a mixed race audience for ballet in 2015 feels so antiquated. Mixed audiences at cultural events in the U.S. last made headlines in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, and when the likes of overseas acts like The Beatles refused to play to segregated houses which were then the norm, seeing them from their outsider’s perspective as blatantly unfair. Today’s ballet theatres aren’t segregated, not by law anyway. But there is no denying that blacks don’t go to the ballet as much as whites do and by choice. One of the reasons often cited is they don’t see themselves reflected in the art form. They don’t see dancers who look like them, even superficially, up on the stage. The point is worth repeating as the thousands of blacks who did attend the June 24 matinee performance of Swan Lake were vociferously there for Copeland. (You can’t say they were there for McKenzie’s choreography whose 2000 version faithfully follows the Petipa-Ivanov original as scored by Tchaikovsky but without taking artistic risks which might have livened up the plot.) You could see them in advance of the show, outside on the Lincoln Center square, whole families dressed in their Sunday best: fathers, mothers, children. There was also a healthy contingent of girl fans; discovered at age 13 on the basketball court at the her local Boys and Girls Club in her hometown of San Pedro, Calif., Copeland is proof that if you love ballet, and are willing to sacrifice for it, then anything might be possible. She has become a role model and an inspiration.

Some of her own role models were also in the audience that day and they included the now 50-year old Anderson who strode on stage following the performance to give a much-surprised Copeland a huge bouquet as well as an embrace that lifted the younger dancer up off the floor, her fabled feet dangling in mid-air. Raven Wilkinson also came on stage to give her protegee flowers. Copeland’s fellow dancers, each of who had contributed in making this performance of McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake a truly stirring event, were surrounding Copeland on stage they, too, broke into reverent applause. A ballet pioneer, Wilkinson was the first African-American dancer to perform with the famed Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo which she joined full-time in 1955. As Wilkinson explains in the 2005 documentary, Ballet Russes, she was the victim of racial discrimination at the hands of the Klu Klux Klan when she toured with the company to the American South in the 1950s. So she knows first-hand what an achievement it is for a dancer of colour to be recognized as among the best of the best in her home country. “She reminded me of Alicia Makarova,” Wilkinson said backstage, comparing Copeland’s tilt of the head and darting eyes along with other details of her poetic dancing to one of the greatest ballet stars of the 20th century, a fellow member of the Ballets Russes. The comparison is important.

While celebrated for her unique athleticism as a result of the Under Armour ads, Copeland is above all else an artist who is using her finely tuned body to create meaning both on and off the stage. Her Swan Lake was a magnificent achievement, accented by willowy back bends, rippling arms and rock solid balances. Irina Kolpakova, one of the great ballerinas of the Soviet era known for her precision and deep understanding of dance dramatics is said to have coached her and, following Kolpakova’s lead, Copeland used her virtuoso technique to carve a personality out of the choreography. Her Odette was portrait of a woman under siege, fear colouring her eyes while her feet fluttered beneath her. When she danced Odile she turned into an ultra-confident vixen whose relationship with the besotted Prince Siegfried was palpably sexual. Sparks flew even as Copeland flubbed the requisite 32 fouett├ęs that have been hallmark of the technically demanding Black Swan role since the Italian spit-fire Pierina Legnani first performed the sequence back in 1895, establishing the standard against which other ballerinas are now measured.

Those tricky one leg turns demand great strength and stamina of the ballerina, usually taking years to master. Copeland got more than half way through them then transitioned to rapid-fire turns while staying on the music. It’s really not important. The bigger deal is that Copeland danced got to Swan Lake at all. As Wilkinson told me during intermission, “It’s all part of the journey, and you can’t start the journey until you get the ballet.” There will be years to perfect those turns, yet. Count on it.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large


  1. Thanks for a wonderful article. I am a steadfast fan of Gillian Murphy and her portrayal of Odette/Odile, and was wondering how Copeland was in comparison?

  2. I’m glad for the message MCopeland’s success has inspired, but a principle should be able to do her 32 fouett├ęs. A soloist “has a few years to work on it.”