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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The new ABT audience is diverse. Mothers of all ethnicities come with little girls in tutus or clutching dolls. Church ladies proclaim, “I never thought I’d see the day . . .” Groups of school kids lean forward in the Met’s plush velvet seats in hushed awe.

At a Copeland “Swan Lake” performance, a group of young Black millennials showed up in ballet skirts and high heels. They belonged to a bachelorette party that flew in from Atlanta just to see Copeland dance. Former ABT board member Susan Fales-Hill recalls meeting “a young couple who had flown in from California just to see Copeland dance a lead role.” She said, “The wife was a school principal. She had watched ‘A Ballerina’s Tale’ and was so moved by it her husband decided to surprise her with a trip and tickets.”

At the stage door after Copeland’s performances, the line of fans stretches all the way to Amsterdam Avenue. While she signs their programs, point shoes and what have you, they quickly snap selfies and clutch the presigned Copeland “Swan Lake” photos that manager and publicist Gilda Squire says ABT generously reproduced for them.

New York Times critic Alistair Macaulay recently wrote that Copeland “has become the most renowned person in American dance,” and “her offstage story is much more discussed than her onstage dancing.” But, as Carlotti pointed out, once in the theater it’s all about Copeland the ballerina. In fact, one impact of the “Misty effect” could be that this new, diverse audience is infusing new blood into what some might have feared was becoming an anemic art form.

Whatever the reason, for all the attention, Copeland is not distracted by the glare of the spotlight. Squire explained, “She is able to keep things in perspective because once she goes inside that rehearsal studio, she says, ‘You have to be 100 percent present.’ And, when she steps onstage, all she is is a dancer.”

Although Copeland’s story might get folks attention, what wins them over is her artistry. Make no mistake about it, Copeland is a beautiful ballerina. For that reason, it is important to understand that seeing her once in “Firebird,” “Swan Lake,” “La Fille Mal Gardee” or any other ballet is not a matter of “been there; done that.” As with any dancer, the true appreciation of an artist’s journey is about watching the artist evolve. That, as Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director and former prima ballerina Virginia Johnson says, “comes with time.”

In fact, DTH founder Arthur Mitchell said on a day clouded by news of police shootings and the Black Lives Matter campaign, “Racism is what’s happening in the world right now.” Then, he seems to echo Times critic Macaulay, who recently declared the fixation with Misty’ s performance of “the most exposed example of virtuoso technique,” the 32 fouettes in “Swan Lake,” to be “a bore.”

Mitchell applauded ABT for the “wide range of roles” Copeland “is being given to dance.” Recalling his own historic promotion, when George Balanchine made him the first Black male principal with the New York City Ballet, at an equally turbulent moment in American history, Mitchell said, “The pressure that is being brought on Misty is not easy.”

Although this season was decidedly special, Mitchell went so far as to raise the barre even higher, noting that there is yet another rung of this remarkable career ladder for her to reach—prima ballerina. “It takes time to get to that point,” he added, leaving unspoken the fact that few do reach that level. Then Mitchell said, “I don’t think this season touched what she can do. It will be interesting to see how she does everything in a year from now.”

Copeland fans, take note. Although you might have been blown away this season, stay tuned because all indications are that the best is yet to come.