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By Astrida Woods
The American Ballet Theatre soloist brings passion and power to all her roles.
Copeland, in costume for Prince's Crimson and Clover music video. Photo by Matthew Karas.
It was a big deal when Misty Copeland was promoted to soloist in 2007—the first female African American ballet dancer to reach that status at American Ballet Theatre in over two decades. In the last three years she has shone bright in repertoire ranging from avant-garde to pure classical and everything in between.
Her sublime rapport with her partners in Twyla Tharp’s audacious duet Sinatra Suite has earned her the honor of dancing with the company’s male superstars, including Angel Corella, Herman Cornejo, Marcelo Gomes, and Jose Manuel Carreño. When it comes to steaming up the audience, no one does a more sultry “Rum and Coca-Cola” in Paul Taylor’s Company B than Copeland. Cast in leading roles in contemporary works by Forsythe, Kylián, Kudelka, and Mark Morris, Copeland illuminates them with special flair.
But it’s her classical repertoire that has deepened in artistry with each season. In the peasant pas de deux from Giselle, she is buoyant and refreshingly lyrical, and her plush jumps in Swan Lake’s pas de trois are a joy. As the Fairy of Valor in Sleeping Beauty, she tempers the harsh stabbing fingers and dagger-like pas de chats by uplifting her body with grandeur and, yes, valor.
Last year, her exhilarating performance as Gulnare, the slave girl in Le Corsaire, was as close as she’s come to a leading role in a full-length ballet. She met the challenge full on, shaping this cipher character into a mischievous vixen. One of her coaches was ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie. “He has such a great eye and the ability to see the overall picture,” says Copeland. “He showed me how I should hold my back and let everything fall into place.”
McKenzie says, “Misty is enormously versatile. She knows how to listen, realize and apply. She is a real representation of the American dancer. I obviously believe in Misty. She has earned everything she has achieved.”
At right: In the pas de trois of Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
At left: As Gulnare in Le Corsaire. Photo by Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.
Copeland, 28, grew up in San Pedro, California. As a child, she made up routines to Mariah Carey and danced around the house. Then she discovered cheerleading and tried out for squad captain—and made it. Ballet never crossed her mind until her drill coach, Elizabeth Kantine, trained in ballet, said to her, “What are you doing here? You have the physique of a classical ballet dancer.”
A visiting dance teacher, Cynthia Bradley, also recognized the young teen’s potential, and invited her to study at her studio on full scholarship. At age 13—ancient by ballet starting standards—she and her mother made the two-hour bus ride to classes. But sometimes working two jobs, with three other children at home, was too much for her mother. To make up for lost time, the Bradleys invited Misty to live with them during the week and return home on weekends. Within a year she was on pointe and dancing major roles in school performances. But after two years, Copeland says, “My mother felt she was losing me.”
A heated tug-of-war developed between the Bradleys and her mother that was resolved when the teenager moved back home. She began studying at Diane Lauridsen’s Ballet Centre, where she gained strength in basic technique. She also studied with Lola de Avila at the San Francisco Ballet School.
Copeland saw her first ABT performance when she was still 13, with Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella in Don Q. “I will never forget it,” she says. “As soon as I left the theater, I wanted to do Kitri.” Herrera has been her idol ever since. “Paloma never looks tired onstage; she is so consistent and knows her body so well. In the wings she is never out of breath.”
At 15 Copeland entered the Music Center Spotlight Awards in Los Angeles and won first place in the ballet category. A video clip of Copeland performing Kitri in the Don Q pas de deux and variation leaves little doubt that this exquisite teenager already possessed musicality, strong technique, and a radiant stage presence—plus she pulled off the requisite fouettés.
In 1999 she came to New York City on a full scholarship for ABT’s summer intensive. Although she was offered a place in ABT’s Studio Company (now ABT II), she decided to go home and finish high school. The next year, Copeland returned for another summer session and joined ABT II. A year later she accepted ABT’s corps contract and promptly left on tour to China.
Copeland admits she is more at home with contemporary works, particularly Tharp’s ballets. “I feel very comfortable and confident in them,” says Copeland. In Baker’s Dozen she moves with silken cool, and she’s locomotion-in-sneakers in Tharp’s barnburner, In the Upper Room. Recently the choreographer created a role for Copeland in Rabbit and Rogue.
Soloist Craig Salstein has been her frequent partner since their ABT summer-course days. “Misty is the easiest and most comfortable body to move around,” says Salstein. “When you get Misty as a new partner that is a plus.” The two are paired in Tharp’s intricate and fast-paced Brahms-Haydn Variations, where one missed cue can spell disaster.
She also hit it off with Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. “From the moment I met Jorma I felt like we had this connection. He was speaking another language with his body, and I get his movement,” says Copeland, who created lead roles in both the ballets he made for ABT. In rehearsal Elo discovered Copeland’s “instant replay” visual memory. He says, “Often with me in my creative moments—they are very fast, and I can’t repeat them myself. Misty has the capability to absorb something extremely fast and then reproduce it exactly, and she gives such clarity to the material. If I were to make my own company, she would be the first one I would call.”
Copeland in her own clothes. Photo by Matthew Karas.
Glamour emanates from the extravagantly talented ballerina; though only 5' 2" she appears much taller onstage. Copeland sees herself as a trailblazer and dreams of becoming the first African American ballerina to reach principal at ABT. She aspires to perform classical roles such as Kitri, Giselle, and Gamzatti or Nikiya in La Bayadère. She knows that these full-length ballets require strength, stamina, dazzling technique, and dramatic flair. “These roles I feel I could do,” she says. “What I need most is the experience of doing them.” But she also understands that ABT has a deep bench, and opportunities to perform them are few.
Yes, she has had injuries—stress fractures in her lower back early in her career, and a recent one in her shin that sidelined her for the first half of 2010. At times during her six and a half years in the corps, she began to doubt herself. “Definitely there have been frustrations,” says Copeland. She feels that ABT casting tends to put her in the more modern works. “I have to remind them that I was trained classically and this is what I want to do—the classical roles,” she says. “So that has been one of the biggest struggles for me here.”
In 2006 a ray of sunshine came into her life in the form of the author and producer Susan Fales-Hill, who sits on ABT’s board. Fales-Hill became Copeland’s sponsor—and a friend. She opened the dancer’s world to other successful black women who helped restore her flagging resolve. “No one does everything alone,” Fales-Hill says. “The extra tailwind helps.” Fales-Hill has also advised Copeland with her offstage pursuit: designing dancewear for fuller-figured dancers and athletes. “I have never been able to find leotards that give me the right bust support,” says Copeland.
When Copeland received the two-year Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in 2008, she used the money for working privately with Merrill Ashley on Balanchine technique. “I felt that a lot of the Balanchine ballets were my weakness,” Copeland says. “I need to learn quick foot work and still stay open and free on top.” It paid off last spring, when she performed Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux with Jared Matthews during the Met season.
In her wildest dreams Copeland never could have imagined the phone call that woke her up one morning when her friend said that Prince wanted to get in touch with her. Her reaction: “Prince who, prince of what? What are you talking about?” The friend was talking about Prince the rock musician, who wanted her for his music video Crimson and Clover. The ballerina flew to L.A. in March 2009 and filmed it on a Hollywood soundstage. Ravishing under scarlet light, she improvised the lush développés, lilts, and swirls in slow motion that were superimposed over the rock star’s performance. Check it out on YouTube.
Believing that dreams can come true, Copeland says, “There are so many young African American ballet dancers who stop me on the street or in the subway,” she says. “They say, ‘I want to be just like you, I want to pursue a classical ballet career.’ And I say, ‘Do it now! No reason to wait. I’m here and I made it.’ Hopefully I can set that example so they don’t give up.”
Astrida Woods, a former ballet dancer, contributes to Dance Magazine and Playbill and is working on a book called Dancers Are People Too.
Photo by Matthew Karas.