ABOVE PHOTO: Misty Copeland (Photo: Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com)
By Jocelyn Noveck
NEW YORK — Misty Copeland, the Missouri-born ballerina who’s become a forceful voice for diversity in ballet and achieved a celebrity that far transcends that rarified world, was named principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre on Tuesday – the first African American woman to reach that status in the company’s 75-year history.
Copeland, 32, fought tears as she spoke about her promotion, which she said was a lifetime dream – but such a difficult one to attain that she never really thought it would happen.
“This is it,” she said. “This has been my dream since I was 13, to be a principal dancer and reach these heights.”
“But it hasn’t been overnight,” she added at a hastily arranged news conference – a rarity for a ballet promotion. “It’s been 14 years of extremely hard work … I’m just so extremely honored to be an African-American and to be in this position.”
And, Copeland said, she hoped her ascension to the very top ranks of ballet would inspire other young dancers of color – “all the little girls” – to stick with their own dreams.
“So many young dancers of color stop dancing at an early age because they just don’t think there will be a career path for them,” she said. “I hope that will change.” She spoke of her own doubts when she joined the ABT corps at age 19 and saw no one “who looked like me.”
“I had moments of doubting myself and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know if there would be a future for an African-American woman” at that level,” she said. “At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through.”
The company announced the promotion six days after Copeland made her New York debut as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” one of the most important roles in a ballerina’s repertoire. The emotional performance ended with Copeland being feted onstage by trailblazing black ballerinas of earlier generations, and with a sea of fans cheering and taking cellphone videos.
Copeland has become increasingly famous over the past several years, achieving a pop culture status exceedingly rare for a ballet dancer.
“We haven’t had a ballet dancer who has broken through to popular culture like this since Mikhail Baryshnikov,” said Wendy Perron, an author and the former editor of Dance Magazine. “And she’s going to bring more attention from that world to ballet.”
In the past year, Copeland has appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine as one of the most influential figures of 2015, and written both a children’s book, “Firebird,” and a best-selling memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” which has been optioned for a movie. She also was the subject of a documentary at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
In recent years she’s also performed in a music video with Prince, and been featured in a hugely popular online ad for Under Armour sportswear that shows her leaping and spinning in a studio, while a narrator recounts some of the negative feedback she received as a youngster, when she was told she had the wrong body for ballet and had started too late – at 13.
The dancer also has appeared as a guest host on the Fox show “So You Think You Can Dance” and was a presenter at this year’s Tony awards.
Many who attended Copeland’s historic “Swan Lake” performance last week noted what a diverse audience Copeland had drawn to the Metropolitan Opera House, where ABT performs its spring season. The crowd was filled with young girls – black and white – in their party dresses.
“She singlehandedly made that a diverse audience,” Perron said.
Damian Woetzel, former principal dancer for New York City Ballet and now the director of the Vail International Dance Festival, called Copeland’s rise “groundbreaking.”
“In the racially underrepresented world of ballet, Misty has already had an historic impact,” Woetzel said in an email message. “Now, as a groundbreaking principal dancer, she will continue to inspire and make possible much-needed changes for our field and for the arts in America.”
Born in Kansas City, Copeland moved at age two to California, where, she noted at Tuesday’s news conference, she first took ballet classes at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America – not, she said, a common path to becoming a ballerina for an elite company.
She writes in her memoir that her childhood was defined by “packing, scrambling, leaving – and often barely surviving.” But she became known as a local dance prodigy, despite her late start, and joined ABT’s junior company at age 18, then the full company at 19. She became a soloist at age 24.
Copeland is the first black ballerina and second black dancer overall to be a principal at ABT, after Desmond Richardson, who danced with the company in 1977-1978 and returned later as guest artist. At New York City Ballet, there has never been a black female principal, and only two black male principals. (One of them, Albert Evans, died last week at the age of 46.)
In 1990, Lauren Anderson became a principal dancer at Houston Ballet – the first black female principal in the country. Anderson, now retired, was onstage at last week’s “Swan Lake” curtain calls to give Copeland a huge hug and lift her off her feet. Copeland paid tribute on Tuesday.
“It’s not me up here,” she said. “It’s everyone who came before me and got me to this position.”
Also named an ABT principal dancer on Tuesday was longtime soloist Stella Abrera. In addition, Maria Kochetkova, a principal with the San Francisco Ballet, and Alban Lendorf, a principal with Royal Danish Ballet, are joining as principals, it was announced.