Raven Wilkinson—who in 1955 joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as the first African-American woman—and Lauren Anderson—who in 1990 became the first female African-American principal dancer in the country at Houston Ballet and, at the time, the world’s only African-American prima ballerina in a major ballet company—brought flowers and warm hugs to Misty Copeland at the curtain call for her performance as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” one of the most important roles in a ballerina’s repertoire.
For her fans, this long-awaited New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera House Wednesday, June 24 came after acclaimed performances in Australia and Washington, D.C. For Washington Ballet, the African-American dancer, Brooklyn Mack danced the role of Prince Siegfried, Copeland’s partner. One week after this historical performance, yet another milestone in Copeland’s career was realized—ABT announced her promotion to principle dancer. At 32, and after more than 14 years as a soloist, Copeland is the first African-American to be named principle in the company’s 75-year history.
ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s “Swan Lake,” after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 version, is one of many that tells the story of a prince who encounters a swan transformed from a human princess by a sorcerer. Intoxicated by his love for the beautiful swan, the prince pursues the swan creature until they fall into a lake and are “united in life after death.”
Amid the splendor of this classic ballet, from the first time she appears running across the stage, hair and costume trailing behind, Copeland is intoxicating as Odette. In all white, her arms are beguiling as they undulate as wings in requisite transitions from here to there. She glides across the floor in multiple bourre (small steps en pointe), and she softens her solar plexus just enough to secure Odette’s grace. Later, stark and in all black, she takes on the role as the dark character Odile.
Possibly foregoing the traditional 32 fouettes as Odile, Copeland instead masterfully defines the two. The lovely lines when her arms and legs extend, her chiseled legs and the way she pierces the floor with breathtaking balances en pointe will forever underscore her knowledge and command of the form plus her uncontested artistry. James Whiteside as Prince Siegfried was a charming partner, and Calvin Royal gave a notable performance as the prince’s best friend.
On this historic day, the audience was largely diverse because of Copeland’s self-imposed charge to change the face of ballet for Black dancers. In 2014, for Pointe magazine, when asked, “What are your thoughts on ballet’s continuing diversity problem?” Wilkinson responded, “My never-ending question is: When are we going to get a Swan Queen of a darker hue? How long can we deny people that position? Do we feel aesthetically we can’t face it? I think until we start seeing it regularly, we’ll never believe it. But I’m sure that won’t take another 60 years to happen.” Now, because of Copeland, the wait is over.