NEW YORK – Misty Copeland was fast becoming the most famous ballerina in the United States – making the cover of Time magazine, being profiled by “60 Minutes,” growing into a social media sensation and dancing ballet’s biggest roles on some of its grandest stages. But another role eluded her: She was still not a principal dancer.
Until Tuesday, when Copeland became the first African-American woman to be named a principal in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theater.
Even as her promotion was celebrated by her many fans, it raised all-too-familiar questions about why African-American dancers, particularly women, remain so underrepresented at top ballet companies in the 21st century, despite the work of pioneering black dancers who broke racial barriers in the past. And it showed how media and communications have changed in dance, with Copeland deftly using modern tools – an online ad she made for Under Armour has been viewed more than 8 million times – to spread her fame far beyond traditional dance circles, drawing new audiences to ballet.
“I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level,” Copeland said at a news conference at the Metropolitan Opera House on Tuesday afternoon. “At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation. So it’s not me up here - and I’m constantly saying that - it’s everyone that came before me that got me to this position.”
Fittingly, the moment of her promotion was captured on video and shared on Instagram. “Misty, take a bow,” Kevin McKenzie, Ballet Theater’s artistic director, could be seen saying, before colleagues congratulated Copeland, who seemed to be fighting back tears. Her promotion was lauded on social media by, among others, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Prince, who had featured her in a video.
Over the past year, whenever Copeland, 32, danced leading roles with Ballet Theater, her performances became events, drawing large, diverse, enthusiastic crowds to cheer her on at the Metropolitan Opera House, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. After she starred in “Swan Lake” with Ballet Theater last week – becoming the first African-American to do so with the company at the Met - the crowd of autograph-seekers was so large that it had to be moved away from the cramped area outside the stage door.
In a break with ballet tradition, Copeland was unusually outspoken about her ambition of becoming the first black woman to be named a principal by Ballet Theater, one of the country’s most prestigious companies, which is known for its international roster of stars and for staging full-length classical story ballets. She wrote about her goals and struggles in a memoir published last year, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.”
A number of leading dance companies and schools, including Ballet Theater, have begun new efforts to increase diversity in classical ballet, there is a long way to go. Jennifer Homans, the author of “Apollo’s Angels,” a history of ballet, said that ballet had fallen far behind other art forms, like theater, in its diversity – making what she called the “phenomenon” of Copeland all the more important.
“What she has come to represent is so important in the dance word, and in the ballet world in particular,” said Homans, who is the director of the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. “I think it’s about time. But I don’t think it’s enough.”
This history made Copeland’s chances for promotion a much-discussed topic in the dance world, and put a rare public spotlight on Ballet Theater as it weighed the kind of personnel decision that, in the rarefied world of ballet, is rarely talked about openly. That race could still be such an issue in 2015 – and that African-Americans could remain so rarely seen in elite ballet companies – has been depressing to many dancegoers, and has led to impassioned discussions in the dance world and beyond about race, stereotypes and image.
The dearth of black women in top ballet companies has been attributed to a variety of factors, from the legacy of discrimination and lingering stereotypical concepts of what ballerinas should look like to the lack of exposure to ballet and training opportunities in many communities.
More than a half-century has passed since the pioneering black dancer Arthur Mitchell broke through the color barrier and became a principal dancer at New York City Ballet in 1962, and a generation has elapsed since Lauren Anderson became the first African-American principal at Houston Ballet, in 1990. But City Ballet has had only two black principal dancers, both men: Mitchell and Albert Evans, who died last week. Ballet Theater officials said that the company’s only African-American principal dancer before now was Desmond Richardson, who joined as a principal in 1997.
In ballet, principals earn not only the respect of the dance world but are also paid more, dance bigger roles and see their photos in programs, as well as their names in larger type. Copeland last seemed on the verge of promotion in 2012 after a breakthrough performance in the title role of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” but she was sidelined by injury.
While Copeland has earned many good reviews when she has danced big roles, including some calling for her promotion, other critics have suggested that she still had work to do to make some classical roles fully her own. When she danced the double role of Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” for the first time in New York last week, she did not do some of the traditional bravura fouetté turns – which critics forgave, but noted. But she has also established herself outside traditional dance circles with her books (her memoir and “Firebird,” an illustrated children’s book), ads and public appearances, and has received help shaping her public image from her manager, Gilda Squire.
In last week’s “Swan Lake,” cheers for Copeland repeatedly stopped the show. Smartphones came out to record her curtain calls, and she was handed bouquets onstage by Anderson and Raven Wilkinson, who danced with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the late 1950s.
Afterward, little girls carried copies of “Firebird” to be signed, and several adults held copies of “Life in Motion,” the memoir Copeland wrote with Charisse Jones.
The crowd cheered when she emerged from the theater. A man shouted: “Principal! Principal, Misty! Principal, dear!” A woman called out, “Congratulations, Misty!”
Before signing autographs and posing for pictures, Copeland addressed the crowd in a quiet voice. “Thank you so, so much for your support – it means so much to me to have you all here,” she said. “It’s such a special day for me, and for so many people who have come before me. So thank you for being here on this amazing day.”