Photos: Gregg Delman. Vogue Italia Writer, Robyn Carolyn Price shares her interview with us on principal ballerina, Misty Copeland. View this intimate look inside the life and dance world of the gifted and beautiful Misty Copeland
via: Vogue Italia
by: Robyn Carolyn Price
“One of the quandaries of being a black ballerina is that people never stop talking about it. Every single article is peppered with references to the rarity of your position, the novelty of being a black woman pirouetting alongside a bevy of white swans. And speaking of swans, let’s wade a bit further. In response to your dream of dancing principal roles like “Odette” in Swan Lake, some brilliant, observant soul reveals the audacity of your hope – saying to you, Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theatre, that your physical features don’t quite echo that of the lead character. Reminding you, in case you’ve forgotten, that “Odette” is in fact, the white swan. Misty Copeland’s skin color, this wondrous, yet inconvenient truth, glides along the backdrop of the classical ballet, defying the attempt to construct another narrative. Because in 2013, there are still too many firsts.
When Misty Copeland joined the legendary American Ballet Theatre (ABT), she was the only African-American female dancer in the company; and for the next eleven years, it would remain that way. And although she’d make history in 2007 by becoming the first African-American female soloist in two decades, and only the third in the company’s 76 year history — neither Misty, nor any other black female dancer to date has ever been promoted to principal ballerina in the major American companies, the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The disparity is remarkable; and some black ballerinas resort to dancing abroad where things are more equitable. It’s a fascinating conundrum for a 21st century America.
In this interview, Misty Copeland opens up about her love affair with the ballet, and the heartbreak that has come along with it. Her story is a classic American tale about both the dreams, and the dreams deferred. It’s an incredible tale of God-given talent, but a talent that very well may have remained dormant, left undiscovered by both Misty and by the world, had it been based solely on her family’s socioeconomics, access, and pedigree. Misty talks about the twist of fate that would usher her, a thirteen-year old girl from a Southern California inner city, into one of the most exclusive, expensive, inaccessible professions by way of a basketball court where she was taking free dance lessons.
What often feels like a Cinderella story, complete with magnificence and splendor, is coupled with an optimism that’s grown cautious over time – having to come to terms with the reality that uncontrollable variables may stand in the way of Misty realizing the full extent of her dream. If Copeland never reaches the pinnacle of a ballerina’s career, by taking a bow on stage as a principal dancer — she’ll always be forced to wonder two things. Was it her talent that prevented her from going further? Or was it the simple fact that history had repeated itself, determining once again, that there was still no room for a black swan?
Below are excerpts from my conversation with the incomparable, Misty Copeland, who is currently filming a feature documentary on her life entitled, A Ballerina’s Tale“ -Robyn Carolyn Price
You’ve spoken about the daily struggles your family faced as you were growing up. I think growing up lacking financial resources can have two different outcomes. For some children, it forces them to dream of something more, and in some cases, poverty can suffocate a child’s freedom to dream. Were you a dreamer?
I think as a child there weren’t dreams. I can’t recall as a child having some ultimate dream and thinking that it was possible. And when I started taking ballet classes, I don’t think I really understood what I was committing to because I loved it, and I had never found anything that I loved doing, so I just said “yes.” I didn’t want to stop. It was an escape from my every day life, and struggling with my mother financially. And then once I started ballet and I saw my first performance with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), that was when I started to dream. I think those were the first times I really started to envision a different life.
For most young girls, ballet is presented to them as a hobby. At what point did you realize that ballet could become a career?
It didn’t start as a hobby. I was found and brought in because they could see the talent. It was presented to me as a career from the very beginning. My first ballet classes were at the Boys and Girls Club, on a basketball court. And I was discovered there. So it wasn’t like I just wandered into ballet class and was just taking them once a week. When I made the commitment to start attending this ballet school and to accept the full scholarship, I was aware. And Cynthia Bradley, my first teacher, made it clear that this is a career option, and if you’re willing to make the commitment, you have four years for me to train you and get you ready to become a professional. And the goal was always to come to New York.
Wow. The irony of a ballerina being discovered on a basketball court.
It’s just really insane how it all happened and how I fell into it. If that wouldn’t have happened, there is no way I would have found ballet. There’s no way I would have been able to afford it. My entire training for those four years, before I joined ABT, was all scholarship. So I didn’t pay for any of my training. I had two teachers throughout my training. And they both saw this extreme talent, so they were willing to take me in and train me, because they said I could go all the way.
During your training, did anyone ever explain to you how rare it was for a black ballerina to gain entrance into any of the major ballet companies?
I think that in a lot of ways, I’m happy that my race was not something that was discussed (during my training). It wasn’t an issue that was presented to me at that time. Of course, I was aware that I was black. My mother was very clear about telling all of my siblings who we were. Even though I was of mixed raced, my mother was clear about it…telling me I was black, and that I was going to be seen as black. So that is just how I knew of myself. But it wasn’t something that I thought about when I started dancing. I didn’t see myself any different than all the other girls. And I think that helped me in the beginning.
At what point did you realize how few black ballerinas there were in the world of classical ballet?
By the time I got to ABT, I was not at all prepared to deal with what I walked into. I just had no history of the ballet and black women in it. I had no idea that I was going to walk into ABT and be the only black woman there, and for the next eleven years still be the only black woman there. And so I just wasn’t prepared. I think over time, maturing and growing, and understanding how the ballet culture and the history of it works, it’s become easier on a daily basis. But it is hard.
I was seventeen when I moved to New York. I was nineteen when I joined the main company. I was going through a lot. Just becoming an adult and just wanting to fit in, be accepted, and be in common with the other dancers. And I just went through a phase where I felt I was just so different than everyone. I came from a different background. Just so many things I felt like no one could understand or relate to me. And just hearing things every so often, like the fact that I don’t exactly look like a “white swan.” It was very difficult.
Historically, the argument has been made that black women don’t have the right body type for ballet. Is this a valid assessment, or an excuse to justify the exclusion?
It’s a hard thing to separate and try to figure out. Is it about them being black? Or is it really about the body type only? Because I’ve see dancers that are not black that get accepted into major companies, that do not have ideal bodies. I think it is something that is kind of used as an excuse.There are so many excuses that are used. Too muscular. Too athletic. Just not the right proportion. But I think that the ideal physique and look of a ballerina is always changing with different eras. And it’s continuing to change. And I think more dancers are just more healthy and athletic in general, because of the way that choreography and the different kind of dancing is making its way into ballet. So your muscles are going to change and develop. I don’t think they can, or will be able to use that excuse for much longer.
Why are you so candid about the world of ballet? Most people wait until they are done with their careers to discuss the difficulties, for fear of backlash within their industry. I interviewed stylist Lysa Cooper not long ago, and your candor strikes me in a similar way that hers did. No fear of backlash…just blatant honesty about the experiences. It’s quite rare…
Read Copeland’s response and Price’s full interview with Copeland at Vogue Italia