Misty Copeland: Ballet ‘gave me a sense of security and structure’ | Techno Glob


Misty Copeland, 40, is a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater and the author of the new book “The Wind at My Back,” which chronicles Copeland’s mentor, Raven Wilkinson, and her journey to becoming a black ballerina. 1950s and 60s. Copeland lives in New York City with her husband and son.

When was your first ballet?

This would be when I was 2 and was given a tutu for Halloween. I think I was a ballerina for three years straight. I had never seen a ballet. I had never listened to classical music. But my mother liked to tell the story that I was obsessed with becoming a ballerina, even though I didn’t know it officially until I was 13. And it was on the basketball court at my Boys & Girls Club. It was given to local students through a program. And I didn’t like it at first. What I had uncovered was very much out there. I grew up listening to R&B and soul and was a little shocked to hear classical music. And so does dancing in such a structured way. But I actually went to a ballet studio; I was awarded a scholarship to join a local ballet school. And once I was in the ballet studio and in front of the mirror and dressed appropriately, it all clicked. Music made sense to me. And the technique of classical dance was organic and natural. I don’t think many people would use that word to describe ballet technique, which can often feel so foreign to people’s bodies. It all just kind of made sense to me.

In your book you say that ballet is a calling.

I really think it calls people to be a part of it. It’s an incredible thing to experience, to be a part of such a disciplined art form, but I don’t think there’s something that suits everyone. We’re so young and it’s hard to have a social life and do anything other than being in the studio. I think it takes a special person to give their body, to sacrifice.

You just talked about being African American. Do you feel compelled to carry on even when you are often alone?

This is part of the calling. There was something that drew me to this art form that was stronger than the lack of representation I saw. Classical ballet gave me something that I wasn’t getting in my home life — coming from a disadvantaged community and growing up in a single-parent home with not a lot of money and often nowhere to sleep. This gave me a sense of security and structure. And that, to me, was more important and enriched my life so much, that being alone in a room wouldn’t stop me and hold me back. At least initially. That’s how I felt – it wasn’t something that deterred me.

When did you learn about Raven Wilkinson?

I was a professional dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. It’s such a shame that I was in the middle of my professional career before I knew who Raven Wilkinson was. Through a documentary I saw on the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the first professional company she danced for. And it was amazing to watch this movie without any expectation or knowledge that there was a black woman in this company in the 1950s. I just saw it as a bunhead [laughs], as a dancer who wanted to learn more about the history of ballet and the history of this company, which was the first American ballet company to succeed and tour America. I was stunned to see Raven come on screen. And I say this often, but my life changed. My career changed. I found purpose in a rich way that I didn’t have before. Just seeing her on that screen. It has given me a different understanding of how I fit in.

I got to a point in my professional career of being the only black woman at ABT for over 10 years, where I thought: Is this what I’m really doing? Does this make sense? Am I really moving the needle in any way? And the history of black people in America and how we got into different art forms and into classical ballet made me connect with my history and the history of ballet in a very different and more positive way.

And then meeting her in person for the first time, it was overwhelming, but it was a safe feeling, like meeting a family member I’d never met. To connect with someone who looked like me was really going. It felt like coming home.

The book gives insight into the struggles of Raven Wilkinson’s career — coming out of the South and then having to leave the country to perform. This is a story of unrealized potential. But I sensed no bitterness or negativity, only Raven’s joy for the art.

That’s Raven for short. There was never any bitterness or anger towards the art form. When you think about technique, the core of what ballet is, it’s not racist, it’s not exclusive. There are people related to him. These are the gatekeepers. And Raven had such a deep, deep love for craft and art. And I think that even after she experienced all of that, she connected with her—because of ballet.

And were both you and Raven encouraged, at some point, to pursue a dance form that was more connected to your background?

yes It happened very brazenly to her. In my experience, in a classical ballet company, we do modern contemporary works. And many black dancers are pushed into that lane. And that’s what happened early in my career. Maybe I didn’t do “The Firebird” in 2012 — it was the first time in my career that I had the opportunity to appear in a leading role in a classical work. First, I don’t know, 12 years into my career, I’ve been pushed to do more contemporary works that aren’t so focused on ballet technique. This is the case with many black and brown dancers.

Raven was the first person to tell you that you could be a swan. What was its significance?

Swan Queen [in the ballet “Swan Lake”] It is the ultimate classical role for the dancer. The technique of the Swan Queen is not something you just learn organically. You have to train almost independently to imitate the arms to look like wings. All these things. Raven saw that potential in me when I played Firebird, who is a bird, an animal, an ethereal character, and seeing the spirit of what I could be as the Swan Queen was all for her. Being a black woman, you are never told that someone sees you as the swan queen. So it had the Queen’s stamp of approval.

I was shocked to see the book excerpt describing the relationship between the two of you. After seeing the two of you together, a friend described the way you looked, “You’re running the last few miles of a marathon she started years ago.”

And you know, he’s Raven, but there’s been a lot of people before Raven. Many of Raven’s peers at the time were black women who started the race. And it’s actually been my experience that I’ve had the opportunity to pick up where she left off and go where she wanted to go or where she wanted to go. And it’s very important for me to show the world that that’s what happened. I didn’t just – poof – appear out of thin air. There are generations of these women who started this race for me and other black dancers of my generation.

I’m sure you’ve wondered what that means to young black and brown ballerinas?

I think that’s something I was very conscious of — that there were black and brown girls and boys looking up to me. I feel comfortable in this position because I know it’s part of the work I want to do. Because it’s rare to be in that position, in that field, as a black person, and especially as a black woman.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Robin Rose Parker is a writer from Maryland. For the longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.

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