Black ballet superstar Misty Copeland on Swan Lake and racial prejudice

SHE is one of ballet’s unlikeliest stars, an accidental prodigy who rose to a glittering stage career from a life of food stamps, custody battles and grubby motel rooms as one of six children to a battling single mother. Discovered at 13 on a San Pedro, California, basketball court, she stood en pointe a mere three months later after taking up dance, entering the American Ballet Theatre in her late teens, and at 24 becoming one of America’s — and international dance’s — true rarities, a black classical ballet soloist.

Along the way she has performed with rock star Prince, written a memoir (with a children’s book in the pipeline), been appointed to President Barack Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, and is the face of a national campaign to boost diversity in ballet. She has posed for her own calendar, will star in an upcoming feature documentary, has her own dancewear line, and spruiks sports clothing, designer handbags and soft drinks. More than 250,000 fans follow her on social media. Her latest commercial, for American sportswear brand Under Armour, has gone viral since its release last week,

A recent magazine profile describes her as a ballerina for the modern age, “a multiplatform brand beyond the Met”. Not since Soviet defector and ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, it concludes, “has a ballet dancer exhibited demographic-smashing pop-cultural appeal”.

Welcome to the world of Misty Copeland — the 157cm-tall, biracial (she is of African-American, German and Italian ancestry) dance powerhouse making waves in American ballet. As one of the rare black faces in this whitest of art forms, Copeland, 31, has been a lightning rod for debate about racial politics and the perceived colour bar in ballet since she joined ABT, arguably the country’s premier ballet company, in 2001. At the time, Copeland was the only African-American female dancer in the 80-strong troupe; in 2007, she became its first black female soloist in two decades and only the third in the company’s 74-year history. Dance watchers credit her for boosting black participation in ballet, changing the complexion of classical ballet in the way Tiger Woods did for golf and the Williams sisters did in tennis. The editor of US dance magazine Pointe , Hanna Rubin, says at Copeland’s New York debut in Coppelia a few weeks ago, “the audience was far more diverse than many other nights. There were lots of little girls there to see her. They love her. They should.”

Later this month in Brisbane, Copeland will make more history — and face her biggest professional challenge — when she takes to the stage as Odette/Odile in ABT’s production of Swan Lake on its inaugural Australian tour. The role of the ethereal Swan Queen, arguably the most prized among dancers, had long been on Copeland’s wish list but remains a rarity for a black ballerina (though there have been black swans before: Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson reportedly became the first African-American dancer to play the role in a main-stage classical company, in 1996, while in 2012 Britain saw its first black swan with the debut of Celine Gittens at Birmingham Royal Ballet).

Speaking to Review from New York, Copeland, a friendly, open personality whose warm, husky curl of a voice still carries the twang of her west coast origins, says she still can’t quite believe her own success: “Never would I have anticipated getting this role.” It’s a personal triumph for the dancer, who endured years of self-doubt, cultural isolation, rejection, injury, (she’s had a plate screwed into her tibia for six stress fractures) and taunts on blogs about her skin and body; Copeland was once so frustrated by perceived discrimination at ABT (“Being black has hindered me and the roles I have been allowed to do,” she has said) that she contemplated leaving. “And now, here I am, doing Odette,” she says happily, adding that she will be embarking on a rigorous Swan Lake “boot camp” during the northern summer and tapping ABT principals such as Polina Semionova (“such abandonment in her movement”), Diana Vishneva (“incredible arms”) and Gillian Murphy (“she’s so sweet, she’s been tweeting the news”) for inspiration.

Copeland is keenly aware a lot more is at stake than pulling off Swan Lake’s notoriously difficult 32 fouettes. The dance’s world’s attention will be focused on how she handles the pressures of dancing such a powerfully symbolic role. Will her casting prove a game changer, as some including Anderson (whom Copeland describes as “setting the standard and paving the way for ballerinas like me”) hope it will? A black Odette, Copeland’s supporters say, is a huge step forward, hopefully altering calcified ballet conventions about body shape and skin colour, and prompting artistic directors to defy public expectations of white swans and princesses, and back the box-office appeal and talent of the black dancers in their ranks.

Anderson faced racist death threats in the 1990s for daring to dance in supposedly white classical roles. She says the news is a “huge deal, for ABT and for Misty”. It’s a sentiment echoed by Rubin, who featured Copeland and two other black dancers, Ashley Murphy and Ebony Williams, in a recent Pointe article.

Royal Ballet principal guest artist Carlos Acosta, over lunch with Review in Sydney, says Copeland’s casting represents a particular triumph for black female dancers, who’ve faced everything from being told to bleach their skin (as a young black dancer at the Bolshoi claims), to being told their bodies are “wrong” for ballet. “Misty deserves it, she is such a terrific dancer. Ballet should not be about the colour of your skin,” says the Cuban dancer. “If you’re black and you’re talented, you deserve the same ­opportunities as everyone else.”

COPELAND’S appointment comes at a time of renewed focus on ballet’s racial politics. As a 2007 article in The New York Times , “Where are all the black swans?”, asked, what lies behind the disproportionately low number of black dancers in classical ballet? Sixty-odd years after George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein envisioned the New York City Ballet as a flagship for racial equality, establishing a company that sheltered and nurtured the great black dancer Arthur Mitchell, who would himself go on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 to “disprove the myth that Negroes can’t do classical ballet”, black dancers remain rare in ballet. In the US, black talent often flows towards modern dance companies such as Alvin Ailey or Dance Theatre of Harlem; in Britain, they’re found in companies such as Ballet Black.

Copeland and her black peers say the paucity in American ballet is a shame, given it once yielded stars such as Janet Collins, the first black prima ballerina to dance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House; Raven Wilkinson, the first black ballerina of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; Sylvester Campbell (“the black Nureyev”); Virginia Johnson, who in 1992 danced the title role in Giselle with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden; and Albert Evans. None of the American flagships — Houston, ABT, New York City Ballet, Boston and San Francisco — has a black principal (although NYCB has a principal of Indian ancestry, Amar Ramasar). Black dancers in companies such as NYCB, such as Andrea Long and Aesha Ash, have often left, disenchanted by a perceived lack of progress on equality.

The Australian Ballet only last year appointed the first indigeous ballerina, Ella Havelka, in its 52-year history. Internationally, black faces are all but absent from the Bolshoi and the Paris Opera Ballet; the incoming artistic director of the latter company, Benjamin Millepied, sparked a storm of controversy last year when he decried its “absurd” cultural homogeneity: in a “city as cosmopolitan as Paris, I cannot understand why no coloured dancers belong to this company. How can you expect the audience to identify with it?”

Acosta, a proud Cuban dancer (his great-grandfather was an African slave, and he mines his heritage in his recent debut novel, Pig’s Foot), has described the low numbers of black dancers at the Royal Ballet and elsewhere as “shameful” and “embarrassing”. Ballet, he tells Review, “has not come into the 21st century, not like opera, theatre, classical music”.

Now, it seems, the art form is waking up. Last year, ABT unveiled a national diversity campaign, Project Plie, offering, among other things, 40 scholarships to students of colour; Houston Ballet offers scholarships, free ballet clothes and transport through its outreach program, while the Royal Ballet’s Chance to Dance program works with 30 primary schools across London. It’s an issue taking on increasing commercial importance as ballet companies around the world seek to broaden their audience bases by building companies that reflect and resonate with increasingly diverse home cities. In the light of dramatic demographic shifts in the US and Britain, it is a rare ballet company that is not investing in ways to boost diversity in its ranks, not only to reflect societal change but also as a way of countering shrinking (and ageing) predominantly white audiences. The Australian artistic director of the Houston Ballet, Stanton Welch, tells Review he is striving “but struggling” to boost Hispanic audience and dancer numbers in a city that is “well over half Hispanic”. Welch says arguably the hardest issue to tackle is how to attract and maintain interest among minority communities who regard ballet as a foreign, elite white art.

It’s a tough problem to address, says David McAllister, artistic director of the AB. Havelka was appointed to the national company after dancing with Bangarra. (The AB has two full-time indigenous students out of 94 at the Australian Ballet School.) McAllister says Havelka’s arrival “has been too long in coming but we are very focused on making sure there will be many more to follow her”.

To that end, the company’s initiatives include the Young Aboriginal Women’s Program developed with the Wannik Dance Academy in regional Victoria, but “there is much more that can be done and I hope in years to come people will be quoting this article as a way of saying: ‘Look how much we have achieved.’ ”

So what are the key barriers faced by black dancers? Rubin tells Review: “Preconceptions and prejudice (play a role). Obviously, some artistic directors — and audiences — have preconceptions about what a swan queen or Giselle should look like, even today. However, perhaps the biggest hurdle is an economic one. Ballet training, at least in the US, is expensive. And it’s a huge commitment of time and money on the part not only of a serious student but her family.” Copeland and her peers say a deep-seated cultural prejudice is also factor, despite the views of some directors such as Welch and ABT head Kevin McKenzie, who say economics and lack of access to quality training are far bigger issues than racism, but others, such as McAllister, say its still a factor: ballet is not hermetically sealed from the rest of society and “you only need to watch TV to realise that there are still racist views that continue to remain in the community at large”.)

Ballet culture remains overwhelmingly white, says Copeland and her peers, with black dancers still regarded by many as interlopers. The marginalisation of black dancers manifests in numerous ways, she says, from black dancers being passed over for roles or being typecast, to having to be twice as good. They are regarded as too “earthy” and “dynamic” to fit ballet’s ideal of fragile, pale femininity (Anderson says a visiting director once told her she was too “strong-looking” to play the lead in La Sylphide), as well as having the “wrong” bodies for ballet: too muscular, too curvy.

Even the slender Copeland has been targeted, often by anonymous bloggers: “Whether it’s just the muscularity of my body, I don’t know, but I’ve read that I don’t look small and sylph-like and soft enough. It is sort of ingrained in us that our bodies are wrong … but you know, that’s what makes an artist, that you’re not a cookie cutter of the next dancer. But it’s hard sometimes to read people’s opinions on the internet and on blogs, and realise that no matter how much I listen to feedback and try to make changes in my technique and aesthetic, people don’t see me as a leading classical dancer.”

THE body shape argument is a furphy given that black women come in all shapes and sizes, not “just buxom with thick thighs and a big butt”, says Michaela DePrince, 19, an outspoken young American dancer at the Dutch National Ballet: “If more black ballerinas are accepted into classical companies, it will only be a matter of time before the world gets over the ridiculous racist myth that black women are strong and earthy, and white women are pure and delicate. As for strong, every ballerina needs to be strong, no matter what colour she might be.”

DePrince, who featured in the award-winning documentary First Position and is releasing a memoir, Taking Flight, this year, notes astutely that “as a black ballerina, racism is less about what happens to you and more about what doesn’t happen to you”.

As a child, DePrince was adopted by a white American couple from a Sierra Leone orphanage after her father was killed in the country’s brutal civil war; there, she was branded “the devil’s child” because of her skin condition, vitiligo. (Acosta, incidentally, is intrigued when told by Review about the dancer and is impressed when he watches a YouTube excerpt of her performing on his phone: “Amazing ... she should be at the Royal Ballet,” he says, before requesting her manager’s contact).

With her gleaming black skin, she’s intimately familiar with missing out on opportuni­ties because of colour. She was once told by a teacher that “America isn’t ready for a black Marie” when she auditioned for The Nutcracker; she says even now many ballet companies would baulk at casting someone like her in a leading classical role, fearing audiences will not accept a jet-black Giselle or Aurora. Ballet’s ideal remains Eurocentric, and “if a director does not appreciate the aesthetics of African beauty, he will not want to promote a black ballerina to the status of prima because the prima is supposed to be the most beautiful dancer”.

This notion of whiteness has long been ingrained in ballet — even the great Balanchine once said a ballerina’s skin should be the colour of a “peeled apple”.

Ballet’s racial politics are highly nuanced. Anderson points out that Cope­land’s fair skin arguably affords her opportunities darker dancers miss out on: “Now, Michaela DePrince as the swan queen? Now that would be revolutionary.” Having a more “porcelain skin” is one of the reasons, Copeland believes, that East Asian dancers have made inroads into ballet in recent years.

Anderson is rare example of a black dancer who managed to score leads in classical roles, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, as well as in Cinderella and Th e Sleeping Beauty, often alongside Acosta, the pair becoming known as international ballet’s first black power couple following star turns at the Bolshoi Theatre, the Kennedy Centre, the Kremlin Palace and elsewhere. (Welch believes more credit should be given in this debate to Houston Ballet’s pioneering efforts).

Anderson credits the colour-blind casting policies of artistic director Ben Stevenson, who first cast her “in the whiter-than-white” leading role in Alice in Wonderland at 13. Skin colour should not matter because “we are all playing characters. (Queensland Ballet artistic director) Li Cunxin was at Houston Ballet and so we had a Chinese Romeo; Carlos Acosta played a black Romeo opposite a white Juliet.”

To those who cling to views of how Cinder­ella or Odette should look, Copeland counters tartly that being the “wrong” colour has not stopped legions of white dancers from “blacking up” (as the Bolshoi did so controversially in a performance of La Bayadere at the Royal Opera House last year) and taking on ballet’s pan­theon of ethnic roles, from exotic odalisques to temple dancers in Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, Raymonda and others. “You have all these very sensual ballets set in exotic places yet it’s OK for white women to play Indian women in La Bayadere. So it’s kind of one-sided there, isn’t it?”

DePrince says: “After seeing a black dancer in the sylph-like roles often enough, attitudes will change. It is all a matter of exposure and conditioning.” Anderson concurs: “People don’t like change, especially in ballet, but Ben and I basically trained the Houston audience not to care about it.” She recalls the gasps of shock when she took to the stage in 1983 as the Sugar Plum Fairy. “I heard them go ‘whooah’. But actually in the end there were a few people standing. And that was the beginning of the end because then I was in everything and they were expecting me.” Acosta, too, was able to breach unspoken conventions by performing leading roles in Giselle, Romeo and Juliet (most recently with QB in Brisbane), Swan Lake and Spartacus. (He grins, saying when he did it at the Bolshoi, “The audience gasped — a black Spartacus!”) He says, however, that he is “a one-off”; he believes the situation is particularly dire for black women, with black men having an easier path. “If male dancers can jump, and lift girls, they have a job,” adds Anderson. She, too, knows she has been lucky in her career, “though have I been discriminated (against) and have horrible things happen to me? Sure.”

She’s referring here to death threats she received in the 90s. “The threats were through the mail and I was not informed of any of this until near my retirement. I was surprised to find out that there was a FBI file on such things. Apparently there was hate mail about me being in everything, from the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker to Cinderella.”

DePrince is scathing about another facet of this debate: the uniformity argument. How can the eye not be distracted, some ballet purists ask, by the sight of one black cygnet in Swan Lake or one black Snowflake in The Nutcracker, or a black Shade among 23 others in La Bayadere’s famous third act? Uniformity is a key part of ballet’s aesthetics. Defenders of the status quo argue it’s simply practical reality — dancers can’t stand out for anything, be it red hair or being overweight — but Acosta retorts: “There are white swans, there are black swans — why do they have to be all one colour? All the colours together make a beautiful painting.”

The AB’s McAllister agrees: “Once you work in an ensemble for a while the differences melt away and the commonalities bind the group. It is more a matter of training than skin colour or ethnic heritage.” Ballet progressives argue the eye can be trained, perceptions can be changed, choreography can be finetuned. DePrince, who believes the uniformity argument is used to “keep black ballerinas out”, says: “I don’t think the answer is to cull the poppy. I think it’s to scatter more poppies about the field of daffodils. With more black ballerinas in the corps, there will be more black ballerinas rising.”

COPELAND is aware that simply dancing Odette is not going to magically transform ballet culture. Scholarships and other diversity initiatives are important, says Acosta, who strongly believes in subsidising the arts (“the Cuban government gave me a chance to study this very expensive art form for free”), but it can’t be a token “politically correct” effort — companies need to actively search these target communities for talent, he says. Role models are also key, Copeland says. “You need to see black dancers on stage so that the next generation see themselves up there and want to be part of it.” Havelka concurs: “I think it’s important to spread the word and encourage younger generations who are disadvantaged or from a culturally diverse background to pursue their dreams. Hopefully there are other indigenous ballerinas out there who will now find the courage to follow a career path in ballet.”

Copeland is heartened that the issue is on the cultural radar, dissected in public forums, online discussions, and on social media, where the debate is amplified through campaigns such as Brown Girls Do Ballet on Instagram and Tumblr blog Black Ballerinas.

“Things are slowly changing. The audiences who come to see me perform are African-American and they’re excited to support someone who looks like them,” she says. “Everything I try to do with ballet is to bring it to a broader audience. It’s showing a different audience what ballet is. That’s a huge part of it, making it cross over and become part of pop culture.”

American Ballet Theatre performs Swan Lake in Brisbane on August 28.

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