Nearly one month ago at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Misty Copeland, the first African-American soloist in the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), shared an evening in conversation with Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American dancer hired as a permanent member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1954. The conversation was moderated by writer and performer Brenda Dixon-Gottschild.
This meeting, Copeland notes, was an opportunity that she will cherish. She confesses, “I’m so happy to have Ms. Wilkinson as part of my life.” This truth about being the “first African-American soloist with the American Ballet Theatre” sits just fine with Copeland because she is proud to carry this charge. “I’m proud to represent Black ballet dancers; it motivates me, it pushes me to give more to young dancers who look up to me.”
And indeed, young dancers look to her for guidance. In fact, Copeland mentors a group of young dancers with whom she meets as regularly as possible to proffer advice, give private lessons or to motivate them to stay in ballet. She explains, oftentimes “teachers tell them to do contemporary work,” circuitously directing them away from ballet because they are led to understand that “ballet exists only in a white world,” and they would not fit in. “I welcome them into the world of ballet,” she insists.
It wasn’t too long ago that Copeland, a mere 13-year-old dreamer from Kansas City, Mo., raised in San Pedro, Calif., wanted to be a ballet dancer. She needed an outlet because she had no extracurricular activities to fulfill her need to do something artistic, so she turned to “torturing her sister to learn her choreography,” while doing her best to dance out her passion.
Copeland finally began her ballet studies at the San Pedro Dance Center, and although starting at 13 was considered late, Copeland was determined to bring her passion to fruition. She worked very hard for the next two years, and her dream took a turn for the best when she won first place in the Music Center Spotlight Awards, and then began studying at the Lauridsen Ballet Center in California.
She would soon study at the San Francisco Ballet School, and then at the ABT on full scholarship. Copeland joined ABT’s Studio Company in September 2000 and then ABT as a member of the corps de ballet in 2001. She was appointed a soloist in 2007. Today she shares the stage with artists like Paloma Herrera (ABT principal), who she would pine over because “I wanted to be her,” says Copeland.
Admitting that she would never change a thing about her work thus far, she adds that over the years at ABT she continues to learn and grow, and is always challenged. This season, among her many roles, Copeland performs in the role of the milkmaid in Alexi Ratmansky’s “The Bright Stream,” a work that comes to life when “during a harvest festival on a collective farm in the Russian steppes, a Moscow dance troupe arrives to entertain the workers, upsetting the applecart to humorous effect.” Not only does Copeland light up when she talks about how much fun it is to perform this role, she also beams about working with Ratmansky. “I’m such a fan…he’s a hot choreographer…he knows exactly what he wants…he’s a genius, and he is incredible to work with,” she adds.
Copeland is serious about the ballet. She insists that audiences who prejudge African-American artists’ participation in the art form must do their research. “They must find motivation and understand who we are as Black dancers in the ballet world,” she maintains.
One of her many missions is to help open doors for that to happen. Most recently, Copeland performed with the musician Prince at Madison Square Garden in “The Beautiful Ones” and earlier on a music video. That partnership was great, she said, “it has opened up so many doors. It makes ballet more interesting and cool instead of [being read] as a boring dance form.”