Special to the AmNews
The spacious dance studio resonated with applause and whoops and hollers as Misty Copeland and Virginia Johnson took center stage seats before a standing-room-only audience at Dance/NYC’s recent symposium on diversity and inclusion in dance.
After all, here are two women whose experiences embody the issue, with Johnson as artistic director and former prima ballerina of the history-making Dance Theatre of Harlem and Copeland as the first African-American principal in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theater, one of this country’s elite ballet companies.
Copeland angled her chair so she could focus mainly on Johnson while occasionally glancing at an audience hanging on their every word—an audience of dancers, choreographers, funders, educators and others, including Arthur Mitchell, DTH’s founder and, in 1959, the first Black principal dancer in New York City Ballet, one of America’s premier ballet companies.
After thanking the crowd for the warm reception, Johnson explained that this event was to be “just a conversation with an amazing dancer and artist,” then kicked it off by asking, “So, Misty, what’s going on right now?”
Anyone who has gotten ABT’s guide announcing the upcoming 2016 season with Copeland’s stunning “Firebird” photo on the cover knows the spring season starts in May and will include “Swan Lake,” “Romeo and Juliet” and other classics noted for breathtaking choreography, lavish costumes and magnificent sets. There will also be one or two more modern works, such as Alexei Ratmansky’s enchanting “Firebird,” which Copeland premiered in 2015. All in all, while it’s too early to know exactly when Copeland will be dancing, this season clearly promises to be historic.
“This is my first season as a principal dancer,” Copeland said as applause erupts once again. “It’s a lot of hard work right now. I think I haven’t had a schedule this intense since the corps de ballet.”
Johnson said, “One of the things Arthur Mitchell stressed to us so much at DTH in the early days was that we were making role models for future generations of dancers. Is that how you feel?”
“I’m so proud to be part of this legacy of dance that you created,” Copeland said to Johnson, humbly honoring the impressive career of the woman who helped debunk the myth that Black women could not be classical ballerinas. After all, throughout her career, Johnson won critical praise for her technically precise and emotionally compelling performances in classical, neoclassical and contemporary ballets both with DTH and as a guest artist with companies in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Israel, Japan, South Africa and the Soviet Union.
“There wouldn’t be a Misty Copeland without a Virginia Johnson,” said Copeland. “And it is so special to be part of dance at this time with everything that’s happening with the discussion of this topic of diversity.” Turning to Mitchell, she added, “You pushed that conversation so much when you created DTH and gave the dance world this vision of what Black dancers are capable of.”
Copeland then asked, “What it was like to be a part of a company that allowed you to be you in an atmosphere that celebrated dancers of color?“
Johnson replied, “As a person who was part of DTH from the beginning, it was the biggest thrill of my life to have the chance to realize my dream.”
Alluding to her time as a young dancer in Washington, D.C., she added, “I trained my whole life to be a ballet dancer only to suddenly find out that nobody was going to hire me. Then I arrived in New York just as Arthur was creating DTH. For the first couple of years, everybody in the company had been told, ‘No, you can’t do ballet. You don’t have the body. You don’t have the temperament. You should be doing something else.’ But through Arthur Mitchell’s drive and vision, we got a chance to say, ‘Oh no! We get to define who we are. We know that we are ballet dancers. Let us show you what is possible.’ He gave us the opportunity.”
Citing Johnson’s performances in the classical ballet “Giselle,” danced with the National Ballet of Cuba and DTH’s adaptation “Creole Giselle,” Copeland said, “It seems DTH changed how people view Black dancers.”
Although partially true, Johnson says DTH was actually about challenging Eurocentric notions about ballet—what it is and who can do it. In fact, for both Copeland at ABT and Johnson with DTH, diversity of the work, the dancers and the audience is key.
Audiences come to DTH, Johnson said, “because we’re a diverse and ethnically Black company.”
Johnson added, “Besides, ballet is alive and important in the 21st century and can speak to everyone.”
Exclaiming that she saw Copeland’s performance this past summer in ABT’s production of Frederick Franklin’s “Monotones,” Johnson said, “It forces you to realize that here is this beautiful artist, an artist who has worked hard to get to this level so that we’re seeing much more than a Black ballerina. We’re seeing an artist—an artist at the top of her form.”
Copeland said she finds that once people come to the theater and watch a performance, “they’re not seeing a Black ballerina, they’re seeing art.” And, that, she insists is the goal.
“Yes, we’re working towards this excellence that ballet epitomizes and working towards this elevation of the spirit,” she said. “But, while, on one hand it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, at this point in time it does matter what color your skin is because for such a long time there has been this exclusion.”
Copeland said this issue is one she’s very passionate about, alluding to her own non-traditional path—ballet lessons at a local California Boys & Girls Club of America, then a little while later American Ballet Theater’s summer program and, in 2000, ABT’s Junior Studio company and, in 2001, the senior company. Yet despite her meteoric rise, there was, she said, this sense of “isolation.” She even told one reporter, “Suddenly, I felt aware of being Black, that I was never going to get those classical parts.” The feeling was strikingly similar to what Johnson said she and other new DTH dancers felt some 40 years ago before joining that company.
For that reason, both Johnson and Copeland are addressing the diversity issue the best way they know how. DTH has two large summer programs that help kids around the country. “Over and over I hear kids saying, ‘I’ve never been in a place where I could be myself and just be a ballet dancer,’” said Johnson. “Whether they make it to DTH or not, not only do kids need that passion that says, ‘Nothing is going to stop me!’ but also ballet teachers and others need to give up that idea that you’ve got to look like a ballerina before they start training you.”
Speaking of her own personal experience, Copeland says, “One of the first times I experienced feeling like those kids felt when they first came to DTH was working with Debbie Allen at 14 years old. It was the first time I felt totally excited and so comfortable. Looking back now, I know it was because, for the first time, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. The second time I experienced that feeling was when Arthur invited me to take DTH company class when I was 21 years old. It was just such an interesting feeling of empowerment and of feeling comfortable in my skin.”
Recalling her own strong determination to succeed, Copeland said, “It is important for every dancer to feel that they hold the power to become the dancer they want to be. That is something that I took into my own hands. I sought out people that I knew I could gain knowledge from and that I knew were there to support me when I was having those days when I thought it’s just not possible, it’s never been done here so why me? Because of that, I understand the importance of being that person for people. “
Following through on that need to support young dancers, Copeland described Project Plie, a program designed to reach aspiring youngsters interested in studying ballet. Also, Copeland said, “I think it’s important for us to help companies reach out to communities that don’t have the knowledge and the exposure to classical ballet and to educate their parents about what it is to exist in this world and while showing them it is possible for their children to make a career out of this.”
Highlighting the complexity of this goal, Johnson singled out one of the biggest hurdles to success in ballet, “institutional racism.” “It means racism is built into the walls and it’s not easy to tear those walls down. It’s part of the process we have to go through right now,” said Johnson.
Turning to Copeland with a smile, Johnson added, “Certainly, your success right now and your image on the ballet stage and elsewhere is helping people understand, ‘Oh, I didn’t think ballet dancers could do that. I didn’t think ballet dancers could look like that.’ So that’s a beginning. But it means that people have got to be very, very, very committed to asking themselves hard questions.
“I think that there is a lot of work to be done. But one thing we have is Misty Copeland, who has completely captured people’s imaginations around what’s possible.”
As the conversation winded down, Johnson asked this remarkable dancer whose career path has been as remarkably unorthodox as it is successful—not every ballerina performs with Prince or gets 8 million Facebook views for an UnderArmour commercial—to tell folks what she’s working on. As it turns out, in addition to mentoring aspiring young dancers, she is working on her third book and a dance wear clothing line—both of which she hopes will embolden young dancers to have faith in the value of their differences.
Copeland said, “Everything I’m attached to, I’m extremely passionate about.”