BWW Reviews: At Long Last - Misty Copeland Has Been Promoted to Principal

No other ballet dancer has received more publicity than Misty Copeland during the last five years. Her promotion to principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre was announced on June 30, 2015, and picked up immediately by most newspapers and television news shows, including the front page of the New York Times. This long awaited announcement eclipsed the simultaneous promotion of ABT soloist Stella Abrera, another great talent, to principal, who has been waiting longer than Copeland for her promotion.

Because Copeland is the first African American female to reach principal status at ABT, her position and timing is prodigious. The pervasive, sometimes underlying prejudice in this country, has been visible in the ballet world by the relative absence of African Americans and other people of color on stage. This may be understandable, as this art form was born in Europe by a white population. Today, long overdue, it must be admitted that this is no longer acceptable.

As a melting pot nation, we need to accept external differences in favor of real talent and ability. Copeland is the real thing--an extraordinary ballerina. Another reason there are few ethnic ballet dancers is the expensive enterprise to train for many years and buy clothes and pointe shoes (for the girls) just to determine if one is gifted in this area.

Copeland, in conjunction with ABT, has begun Project Plié, a program created to offer scholarships, including dance clothes and shoes, to children with the desire to dance, but not the means. They are invited to train with ABT teachers in the boroughs of NYC and surrounding areas. When asked about the future for African Americans in ballet, Copeland wisely answered that this remains to be seen, as it takes many years and individual effort/desire to create a professional ballet dancer.

This has been quite a journey for Copeland, who first heard of ballet and classical music and took her first ballet classes at age 13 at her local Boys and Girls club. Her story has been widely told, so I will stick to my experience viewing her.

I first saw Copeland when she was 14 or 15, in a story on ABC's 2020--the most talented child I had ever seen was joyfully and beautifully leaping on a beach in California, where she lived and trained. When she was in New York City, performing with ABT about two years later, I was interested in seeing her dance, so I watched her through the years. In the past few years, she has done national commercials for Coach, Diet Dr. Pepper, and recently, most famously, for Under Armour: I will what I want campaign, making her a household name.

This season at ABT, Copeland has been enormously busy dancing both soloist and principal roles. No matter the size of the role, she shines, making her clearly visible, not because of her skin color or her well defined muscles, but because her radiance and her acting ability make her a star.

Dancing the female lead of the Cowgirl in Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, she was lively and fun, the best cowgirl I've seen. In the waltz, in Les Sylphides, she understood, better than most, the feeling of the ballet. In her long time role in Giselle's peasant pas de deux, partnered by Craig Salstein, she was exemplary in both technique and expression. In other performances she danced the role of Zulma, one of two soloist Willis, giving her an opportunity to display her technique with a more somber character. In Lar Lubovitch's Othello, she portrayed the soloist part of Bianca, which she danced with gusto, making it more important than others had made of this character. Alexei Ratmansky, in his staging of Petipa's Sleeping Beauty, cast Copeland as the Fleur de Farine Fairy and as Princess Florine in the Bluebird Pas de deux. She was, as usual, a welcomed addition to the cast, bringing life and light to her roles. Reprising the role of Gamzatti, the entitled Radja's daughter, in La Bayadere, she showed growth over previous years. She was cast, for the first time, as Juliet in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, putting her original stamp on the role. The full house in attendance, which is the case every time Copeland dances a principal role, exploded in approval. The following week, she filled the house for her matinee performance of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. She flew across the stage with beautiful arms, her acting ability and technique on display. Many comment on the fact that an African American playing this role is unusual. All I could see was a magnificent Odette/Odile. Had she been purple, I probably would not have noticed. The last ballet presented by ABT this season was Frederick Ashton's Cinderella. Here she danced the soloist role of The Fairy Autumn. She provided a bright spot whenever she appeared, although it seemed somewhat anti-climactic after seeing her Odette/Odile and Juliet.

In front of the theater, a day after Copeland's promotion to principal dancer, a man, who had likely never seen a ballet, stopped me to ask if Misty Copeland would dance that night. I told him that she would dance a soloist, not a principal role. He was so disappointed, saying that "they" had played a dirty trick, announcing her promotion, but not giving her a principal role for him to attend immediately. I assured him that she would be dancing only principal roles in the future. He went off unhappy.

I, too, look forward to see her dance a plethora of principal roles in the future. It is exciting, just to be in the audience!

It has recently been announced that Copeland will join the cast of On the Town, on Broadway, for 2 weeks, beginning August 25th. A very interesting debut for an already acclaimed ballerina.

Photo Credit: Gene Schiavone

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