Misty Copeland’s first full season as ABT principal ballerina

Zita Allen | 7/21/2016, 11:24 a.m.
This year, American Ballet Theater’s spring season marked a historic milestone. It was the first full season for the first ...
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This year, American Ballet Theater’s spring season marked a historic milestone. It was the first full season for the first African-American principal ballerina in that company’s 75-year history, Misty Copeland.

During ABT’s eight weeks at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, Copeland starred in a number of dramatic works synonymous, for many, with classical ballet: “Swan Lake,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Sleeping Beauty.” She also danced the lead in the charming, light-hearted “La Fille Mal Gardee,” the swashbuckling comedy “Le Corsaire” and the exotic “Golden Cockerel,” as well as the Bluebird pas de deux in “Sleeping Beauty.” Her appearance in ABT resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s critically acclaimed “Firebird” was even a centerpiece of ABT’s PR campaign for this season. In fact, a gigantic banner draped across the front of the Met, ABT posters and brochures and newspaper ads featured Copeland in the bright red “Firebird” costume, on pointe, her head and torso thrust forward with ribbons of yellow flames flickering behind her. When was the last time a Black ballerina was prominently featured in a major American ballet company’s ad campaign? Yeah, this ABT season was historic on many levels.

Yet, despite the potentially distracting glare of the spotlight, Copeland deftly navigated the maze of demanding roles, displaying a fine technique, distinct musicality and delightful dramatic ability in depicting a wide range of engaging characters. In “Romeo and Juliet,” she was a teenager on the brink of womanhood swept up by love’s passion and plunged into tragedy by a fatal family feud. In “Swan Lake,” she was both Odette, doomed to be a swan by day and woman by night, and Odile, her seductive devious doppelganger. In “Firebird,” she was the exotic, proud, powerful mythical creature of Russian fairy tales.

But, let’s face it, because of what some call the “Misty effect” and the fact that in art, too, Black Lives Matter, a look at Copeland’s 2016 season demands a more panoramic view. That is evident not simply on the Met’s stage but also on other stages, in ABT’s audience and in other audiences, in dance reviews, in cyberspace and beyond. (One facet of the “Misty effect” is the attention to a subject I first wrote about decades ago as the first Black critic for Dance Magazine—Blacks in Ballet. But I digress.)

Whether real or imagined, when Copeland performs, there is magic in the air and, as Jesse Williams says, “Just because we’re magical doesn’t mean we’re not real.” Although ABT does not, as yet, have any available stats to bolster folks’ widespread impression, many believe Copeland’s performances are box office magic. When purchasing my tickets at the Met box office, a ticket agent noted Copeland’s performances were selling out fast. The Met is a 3,800-seat house!

Valentino Carlotti, Copeland sponsor, ABT board member and Goldman Sachs partner, said during a recent interview, “It is quickly apparent upon walking into a performance in which Misty is dancing that the audience is more diverse than it generally is at the ballet. I see Asians, Blacks, whites, people from all different backgrounds, races and ethnicities. I think one of the things they’re drawn to is the Misty story, but when you go to the ballet you’re not going to hear Misty’s story, you’re going to watch the ballet.” What you leave remembering is “the power of her artistry, her elegance, her grace, her perseverance, her strength.”