Friday, July 17, still aglow from the promotion that made her the first African-American principal ballerina with American Ballet Theater, Misty Copeland joined three other remarkable artists for a frank, informative and inspiring discussion of ballet and Black women, barriers and breakthroughs.
Entitled “The Breakthrough,” the conversation was moderated by TV producer, author and former vice chair of ABT Susan Fales-Hill and included Copeland, Raven Wilkinson, the only Black ballerina in the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and Carmen de Lavallade, performer, dancer, choreographer and wife of the late Geoffrey Holder.
The audience that packed the intimate lower Manhattan venue for the program, hosted by WNYC radio included Apollo Theater’s Jonelle Procope, Studio Museum’s Thelma Golden, Schomburg Center’s Khalil Muhammad, ABT trustee Valentino Carlotti, Ailey school’s Melanie Person, Jones-Haywood Dance School’s Sandra Fortune-Green and others.
The discussion was, in turn, moving, funny, revealing and insightful, as the women candidly shared truths about their challenges as African-American artists, the passion that sustains them and their commitment to the next generation.
Scheduled before Copeland’s milestone promotion, Fales-Hill said the initial intent was to focus on her historic performance in “Swan Lake” in the “quintessential ballet role of Odette/Odile, a role so canonical that one of Raven Wilkinson’s colleagues at the Ballet Russe once said to her, ‘Don’t even try for it, darling, because a Black woman will never perform it.’” Triumphantly, Fales-Hill declared, “Well, we proved her wrong, didn’t we?”
Fales-Hill linked Copeland’s breakthrough to such game-changers as “Jesse Owens’ four-gold-medal sweep at the 1936 Olympics, which gave the lie to theories of Aryan superiority, and Jackie Robinson’s joining the Major Leagues and changing baseball forever.” She even said, tongue-in-cheek, that Copeland’s promotion was “on par with Barack Obama winning the presidency of the United States.”
For two hours, the spirited conversation took the audience on a journey through an under-explored corner of the dance world. It began with Fales-Hill asking Copeland how it felt to learn that the dream she had nurtured since she was 13 years old “lying on the floor of your living room in your Hello Kitty slippers watching DVDs of ABT dancing ‘Don Quixote,’ had come true and now you are a full star of the company?”
Copeland fought back tears and answered with characteristic humility. “Just to be up here with these extraordinary women and remember the many that have done so much and fought even harder than I did to get to this place, this is an incredible moment,” she said. “It still doesn’t feel real yet.”
“I felt ballet really hit the jackpot!” Wilkinson declared, bursting with pride as she told of the phone call from Copeland’s manager, Gilda Squire, that was instantly followed by calls from friends as far away as Holland. With frank but dignified restraint, de Lavallade added, “It’s about time! It is such an exciting time. It’s one of those things all young girls dream of. I know I did. But back then, ballet was kind of off-limits because you didn’t feel welcome.”
Black dancers have pursued ballet dreams since its inception in this country, Fales-Hill noted, ticking off names that dot the dance-history landscape and even alluding to ABT’s early brief flirtation with diversity. De Lavallade recalled what it was like several decades ago when her cousin Janet Collins was told by one ballet bigwig that to join his company she’d have to lighten her skin. Luckily, Rudolf Bing asked only if she could dance, and upon learning that she was every bit as good as critics said, uttered the words that made her the first Black ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet: “Well, sign her up!”
De Lavallade explained Bing’s lack of reservations: “He was from Europe.” She was alluding to the fact that for decades, Black dancers shut out of American ballet studios and companies found opportunities in Europe. It’s a history too many dance writers have either been ignorant of or chosen to ignore. A Dance magazine article several decades ago entitled “Blacks in Ballet” by this Amsterdam News writer captured a bit of this history, as has a more recent documentary of Ballet Russe.
Copeland says the film made a lasting impression. “It was a shocking recognition that I saw in Raven that kind of woke up something inside me that told me, ‘You are part of this history you don’t know about.’ It made me upset and gave me the powerful desire to share this with the world.”
During the recent discussion, the audience had a similar response as Wilkinson shared some of her story. She told of the Ballet Russe’s performances in the Deep South during the turbulent civil rights era, confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan and her refusal to “pass” even when a hotel manager confronted her, insisting she go to a “colored” hotel because he was afraid his could be bombed. Then, after years distinguishing herself in major classical ballets, Wilkinson was told she had gone as far as she could go and urged to leave by a staffer who suggested she start her own African dance company. Instead, Wilkinson joined the National Ballet of Holland, eventually returning to the U.S. to dance with the New York City Opera ballet company.
Noting the persistent challenges faced by African-Americans in classical ballet, Fales-Hill asked Copeland how she persevered when some critics insisted her line wasn’t classical enough, saying she excelled instead in more modern works. Emphasizing the support she has always gotten from ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, and most of the artistic staff, Copeland did say there is something “engrained in the ballet culture” that causes many to assume Black dancers are better in modern or contemporary works than the classical ballet lexicon. She recalled meetings early in her career “where I would say, ‘You know I wasn’t trained as an African dancer, or a modern dancer, or a hip-hop dancer. All I know is classical ballet, and I would like to be pushed in those roles.”
Despite the naysayers, Copeland stood her ground. “I had to learn how to talk to them by continuing to say I’m hungry and I’m eager. I want to be a ballerina. I want to do these roles. What do I need to do?”
Noting that clearly this worked and things changed, Fales-Hill pointed to other factors that cannot be ignored—the broadened exposure beyond ballet thanks to her work with the iconic musician Prince, an online Under Armor commercial that has more than 8 million views, a best-selling biography and a children’s book. Of course, there was also the excellent technical and dramatic quality of Copeland’s dancing as her dogged discipline kept her focused primarily on “the work.”
Copeland added, “Essentially, just being able to perform the principal roles, the title kind of disappeared for me.” The actual goal of being promoted took a back seat to her enduring love of ballet. “It was kind of like if it happens it happens. If it doesn’t it doesn’t, because I was doing these things I’ve dreamed of doing and worked so hard to do.” Then came the “Swan Lake” debut that critics declared a stunning success, and, well, the rest is history.
As for the future for Copeland, de Lavallade and Wilkinson, all seemed to have one thing in common: a desire to build on the momentum Copeland’s breakthrough has created by helping the next generation of young dancers realize their dreams while also continuing to support the art they love by bringing broader and more diverse audiences into the theater. And there is, as always, the passionate determination to remember and honor the breakthroughs of those who came before them, making “a way” out of “no way” and making this day possible.