Misty Copeland became the first African-American to be named principal ballerina in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theater at the end of the company’s last season. Now, during ABT’s fall season, from Oct. 21 to Nov. 1, Copeland will grace the stage for her first full season as a principal ballerina. Recently, she took time out of a hectic rehearsal schedule to talk to the Amsterdam News about her historic rise, diversity in ballet—both on the stage and in the audience—and what folks can expect this coming season.
AmNews: Misty, thanks to your historic promotion at the end of ABT’s last season, you are now a principal ballerina. Explain what that means.
Copeland: Principal dancer is the highest rank you can attain in a classical ballet company. The percentage of people that actually make it to that level in the world is in the 5 percent range. In American Ballet Theater, specifically, there are three ranks. There’s the corps de ballet, the first rank and the largest body of dancers. They frame the soloist and principal dancers and, I guess you might say, create the atmosphere. Soloists are featured dancers. I was in the corps for five or six years and I was a soloist for seven years. The principal dancer is the lead in the ballet.
Even while you were a soloist, you performed some principal roles. That’s a great opportunity, but it’s also a tremendous load isn’t it?
Yes. As a principal the load’s a little lighter. When I was in the corps de ballet, I was given opportunities to do principal roles as well as soloist’s roles. They weren’t featured. I wasn’t doing Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake.” I was doing more contemporary works that gives a dancer an opportunity to show what they are capable of.
I was getting those opportunities from a very young age, throughout my time in the corps de ballet and as a soloist. These past couple of years as a soloist I also danced principal roles. It’s tremendous wear and tear on the body. Principal dancers dance longer than corps de ballet and soloists because they’re not dancing as often.
When you became the first African-American principal ballerina in ABT’s 75-year history, one historian was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “It’s about time, but it’s not enough.” How do you feel about that?
I think there’s no way around it. I’ve had this path because I am a Black woman, and it’s always been extremely important for me to never forget that. People constantly say, “Oh, isn’t it a burden? Do you wish you hadn’t put so much focus on it?” Or “you shouldn’t be known as a Black ballerina, you should be known as a great dancer.” But it is my reality and the reality of so many who could have had a completely different path and career if they weren’t Black.
So I’m fine with that being the topic of conversation or a headliner. I think it’s bringing awareness to the issue. And just because I’ve been promoted to principal dancer, it’s not enough, and it’s not the end of the lack of diversity in classical ballet or racism in the world or in ballet, but it’s a start, and to me that should be the focus. This is the beginning of what I’m going to continue to push for as long as I’m alive.
But when you step out on stage, people should be looking at you as a ballerina.
Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think that once you enter the space of the theater and you’re coming to see a performance, it’s about us transforming. It’s not about a Black woman standing on the stage or Misty standing on the stage. I think that, at certain times, like when I did Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” for the first time, people were looking at me in that way because it means so much to our community to see someone take on that role that’s never been handed to us. In that way, I understand how people may look at me and say, “Wow! That’s a Black women doing this role.”
Many have noted that when you perform, not only is the theater sold out, but the audiences are more diverse. How do you feel about the impact you’ve had on ABT’s audience?
It’s a proud moment. Not just for me but for my manager, Gilda Squire. When she came to me, at first I didn’t think I needed a manager. My focus was on my career. I’d had press here and there. Starting ballet at 13, they called me a prodigy. Then there was the custody battle when I was 15. I didn’t feel I needed press, but when Gilda asked me, “What do you want? What do you want to say?” I knew I wanted to speak of the lack of diversity in classical ballet.
I also wanted to bring more people into the theater—people that look like me, who might not have the means to be a part of it. That was like the number one thing. So with all of the work that Gilda and I have put into building this platform, some might think that this happened overnight. It didn’t. This is the result of a lot of work and effort.
It has been amazingly strategic.
Yes, but all for the right reasons and never sacrificing my integrity and what I stand for or where my focus is. So to see the audiences fill up in this way, that was Gilda’s goal. I remember her saying, “We’re going to sell out the Met. And there are going to be people in there that look like us.” And I was kind of like, “That’s a wonderful goal, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.” So to see it changing and happening, I think it’s just opening up a whole new community and generation’s eyes to an incredible artform and making them feel welcome and a part of it.
Describe the support you’ve gotten from ABT Director Kevin McKenzie.
When I was brought to ABT’s summer intensive years ago, there was immediate interest in me from the artistic director, Kevin McKenzie. If there had been some other director, I don’t know if I would have had this path. I feel Kevin is very open. Also, if there is a diverse ballet company in the world, ABT is that and has always been that. Before me there were other Black ballerina soloists—Anna Bena Sims and Nora Kimball. That is huge for a company like this, so I think that if there was a place for me to be, it was here. I’ve always had the support of Kevin, even when I was feeling at my lowest of just not fitting in and when my body was changing. I think he’s been my number one supporter from day one. He’s the one who suggested that Susan Fales-Hill come into my life, and I feel that changed everything. Sometimes all it takes is that one person.
You’re paying it forward, aren’t you, by being that one person for budding young dancers?
That’s what I try to do for so many young dancers. There are times when I think, “How can I squeeze this in?” But I know that even if it’s just spending five minutes with someone encouraging them or showing them that someone who cares is here if they need it, that is important. That’s what Susan was for me.
Talk about the lead up to the magnificent debut in “Swan Lake.”
It was quite a process. Kevin started preparing me during the Met season before we knew that I was even going to perform it. He just wanted to start the process so that if the opportunity came, I would be more prepared to fill in for a principle dancer if they got injured or something. And then I think maybe a month later they realized that they were going to have enough shows in Australia to give an opportunity to someone like me. So I started working on ABT’s off time for maybe two or three months before we went on to perform in Australia in September.
First Australia, then the Met. Did it make you a little nervous knowing that that could happen?
Yes. Terrified. (laughing) Being told by Kevin that I was going to learn this role—I mean, it’s so crazy how something can shift so suddenly in your mind. I didn’t envision myself as the swan ever. Being a Black woman, it’s hard to envision yourself in that way. I thought, “What? No, this is not me. I’m not capable.” Then I realized, “This is happening so pull it together! You have to convince yourself that you are going to be this.” It helped that two ABT principal ballerinas, Paloma Herrera and Gillian Murphy, told me, “I’ve always seen you as the swan.”
That’s a tremendous leap for someone to make.
It was. I haven’t had the typical path to become a principal dancer. It’s taken me a lot longer, but when I’ve been given the few opportunities that I’ve had, I feel like I’ve risen to the occasion. Mentally and emotionally, you have to just get to this place where you are in the zone and you’re not thinking about what if I fail or what can go wrong. You have to be determined and just do it. Also, with “Swan Lake,” I tried to enjoy the process. As it was happening, in my mind, as a soloist, I was thinking, “This might be my only opportunity. This may be my one show and I may never be promoted to principal, so I’m going to enjoy this as much as I can.”
Next week: Part 2!