Art of Dance

Harper's Bazaar Art (Indonesia) - - Exhibition Highlight -

As she chan­nels the artist Edgar De­gas’s most fa­mous bal­let works ahead of a new ex­hi­bi­tion at New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, dancer Misty Copeland opens up about what it feels

like to make his­tory. By Stephen Mooallem Pho­to­graphs by Ken Browar & Deb­o­rah Ory

Bal­let dancers, Misty Copeland tells me, like to be in con­trol. It’s some­thing about bal­let it­self—the painstak­ing quest to achieve the ap­pear­ance of a kind of ef­fort­less ath­leti­cism, flu­id­ity, and grace—that makes it hard to let go. “I think all dancers are con­trol freaks a bit,” she ex­plains. “We just want to be in con­trol of our­selves and our bod­ies. That’s just what the bal­let struc­ture, I think, kind of puts in­side of you. If I’m put in a sit­u­a­tion where I am not re­ally sure what’s go­ing to hap­pen, it can be over­whelm­ing. I get a bit anx­ious.”

Copeland says that’s part of the rea­son she found pos­ing for the im­ages that ac­com­pany this story—which were in­spired by Edgar De­gas’s paint­ings and sculp­tures of dancers at the Paris Opéra Bal­let—a chal­lenge. “It was in­ter­est­ing to be on a shoot and to not have the free­dom to just cre­ate like I nor­mally do with my body,” she says. “Try­ing to re-cre­ate what De­gas did was re­ally dif­fi­cult. It was amaz­ing just to no­tice all of the small de­tails but also how he still al­lows you to feel like there’s move­ment. That’s what I think is so beau­ti­ful and dif­fi­cult about dance too. You’re try­ing to strive for this per­fec­tion, but you still want peo­ple to get that il­lu­sion that your line never ends and that you never stop mov­ing.”

It should prob­a­bly come as no sur­prise that Copeland would have trou­ble con­form­ing to some­one else’s idea of what a bal­le­rina should look like; she gave that up a long time ago. At 33, she’s in the midst of the most il­lu­mi­nat­ing pas de deux with pop cul­ture for a clas­si­cal dancer since Mikhail Barysh­nikov went toe-to-toe with Gregory Hines in White Nights. Last June, she was named a prin­ci­pal dancer at Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre, the first Africanamer­i­can woman to hold that dis­tinc­tion. She was also the sub­ject of a doc­u­men­tary, Nel­son Ge­orge’s A Bal­le­rina’s Tale, which chron­i­cled her tri­umph over de­pres­sion and body-im­age is­sues, as well as her come­back from a ca­reer-threat­en­ing leg in­jury in 2012. The story of her rise from liv­ing in a sin­gle room in a wel­fare mo­tel with her mother and five sib­lings to the up­per­most reaches of the dance world has be­come a sort of 21st-cen­tury para­ble: the un­likely bal­le­rina, as Copeland re­ferred to her­self in the sub­ti­tle of her 2014 mem­oir, Life in Mo­tion, who may be on her way to be­com­ing the quin­tes­sen­tial bal­le­rina of her time.

De­gas’s bal­let works, which the artist be­gan cre­at­ing in the 1860s and con­tin­ued mak­ing un­til the years be­fore his death, in 1917, were in­fused with a very mod­ern sen­si­bil­ity. In­stead of ide­al­ized vi­sions of del­i­cate crea­tures pirou­et­ting on­stage, he of­fered im­ages of young girls con­gre­gat­ing, prac­tic­ing, la­bor­ing, danc­ing, train­ing, and hang­ing around stu­dios and the back­stage ar­eas of the theater. Oc­ca­sion­ally, portly men or dark fig­ures ap­pear, di­rect­ing or oth­er­wise col­or­ing the pro­ceed­ings. “Peo­ple call me the painter of danc­ing girls,” De­gas is said to have once told his Paris art dealer Am­broise Vol­lard, the Larry Gagosian of the day. “It has never oc­curred to them that my chief in­ter­est in dancers lies in ren­der­ing move­ment and paint­ing pretty clothes.” It’s an un­sen­ti­men­tal place, De­gas’s bal­let, and his rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the dancers is far from sym­pa­thetic. But it’s a space where he dis­cov­ered not only a free­dom for him­self as an artist but also a kind of beauty that ex­isted be­hind all the beauty of the per­for­mance and in the strug­gle of his sub­jects to be­come some­thing.

“De­gas’s fo­cus on dance is part of his en­gage­ment with de­pict­ing the sub­jects, spa­ces, rhythms, and sen­sa­tions of mod­ern life,” says Jodi Haupt­man, se­nior cu­ra­tor in the depart­ment of draw­ings and prints at New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, where an ex­hi­bi­tion that ex­plores De­gas’s ex­ten­sive work in mono­type, “Edgar De­gas: A Strange New Beauty,” opens this month. “His vi­sion wan­ders and fo­cuses, tak­ing note of what usu­ally is over­looked and hom­ing in on what best re­flects the con­di­tions of his time.”

In her own way, Copeland is now forc­ing peo­ple to look at bal­let through a more con­tem­po­rary lens. “I see a great affin­ity be­tween De­gas’s dancers and Misty,” says Thelma Golden, di­rec­tor and chief cu­ra­tor of the Stu­dio Mu­seum in Har­lem. “She has knocked aside a long-stand­ing mu­sic-box stereo­type of the bal­le­rina and re­placed it with a thor­oughly mod­ern, mul­ti­cul­tural im­age of pres­ence and power,” Golden says. “Misty re­minds us that even the great­est artists are hu­mans liv­ing real lives.” ➤


def­i­nitely feel like I can see my­self in that sculp­ture. … Bal­let was just the one

thing that brought me to life.”

The first blush with bal­let for Copeland was fa­mously un­ro­man­tic. Her mother, Sylvia Delac­erna, was a cheer­leader for the Kansas City Chiefs, and her older sis­ter had been a mem­ber of the drill team at their mid­dle school in Hawthorne, near their home in San Pe­dro, Cal­i­for­nia. So, at the age of 13, Copeland de­cided to try out for the drill squad her­self, chore­ograph­ing her own rou­tine— to Ge­orge Michael’s “I Want Your Sex.” “An odd choice of song,” she says. “I chose ‘I Want Your Sex’ not re­ally know­ing any­thing about what that meant. But that’s how my whole dance ca­reer took off.”

Copeland didn’t just make the team; she was named cap­tain. Her drill coach, El­iz­a­beth Can­tine, had a back­ground in clas­si­cal dance and sug­gested that Copeland try tak­ing a bal­let class at the lo­cal Boys & Girls Club. “The class was given on a bas­ket­ball court, and I was wear­ing my gym clothes and socks—pretty far from a De­gas paint­ing,” Copeland re­calls. But she was hooked. Within three months, she was danc­ing en pointe. “Be­fore dance came into my life, I don’t re­ally re­mem­ber hav­ing any ma­jor goals or dreams of want­ing to be any­thing. In the en­vi­ron­ment I grew up in, we were con­stantly in sur­vival mode,” Copeland says. “I went to school, and I was re­ally just try­ing to fit in and not be seen. But bal­let was this thing that just felt so in­nate in me, like I was meant to be do­ing this.”

Kevin Mcken­zie, the long­time artis­tic di­rec­tor of ABT, has said that it’s Copeland’s vis­ceral re­sponse to mu­sic, com­bined with her unique pro­por­tions and ex­cep­tional co­or­di­na­tion, that makes her a special dancer. What makes her a star, though, is some­thing else. If Copeland isn’t yet an icon, then she is the em­bod­i­ment of a set of im­ages and ex­pe­ri­ences that might seem for­eign to the world of bal­let, were they not so eerily fa­mil­iar to so many bal­let dancers. It’s a job that in­volves spend­ing a lot of time toil­ing in dusty stu­dios in front of mir­rors that con­stantly re­mind you of who you are and what you look like. Copeland has been star­ing into those de­ter­mined eyes of hers much, much longer than we have; she knows just how hard it was to get to the point where they started to look back with any­thing re­sem­bling ap­proval.

“I was drawn to bal­let and per­form­ing for a rea­son that I think a lot of peo­ple can’t re­ally un­der­stand or re­late to,” she says. “Peo­ple think it’s like, ‘You’re out there,’ or ‘You’re ex­posed.’ But I felt safe when I was on the stage, like no one could get to me. It was the first time in my life that I felt pro­tected,” Copeland con­tin­ues. “So when all of the me­dia and the at­ten­tion that came along with me en­ter­ing the bal­let world ar­rived, that was not what I wanted. I take it all very lightly, in terms of peo­ple call­ing me a ‘celebrity’ and things like that. I think what I’m do­ing is show­ing peo­ple how in­cred­i­ble the arts can be for a child and how it’s changed my life. I try not to get caught up in the other stuff, but I un­der­stand the im­por­tance of me do­ing it.”

Copeland is en­gaged to Olu Evans, an at­tor­ney, who she’s been with for more than a decade. They live to­gether in an apart­ment on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per West Side. She ad­mits to an “in­ten­si­fy­ing” de­signer footwear ad­dic­tion, and while she’s still work­ing out the de­tails of her nup­tials, she con­fesses gid­dily that Chris­tian Louboutin is mak­ing her shoes for the oc­ca­sion. Most days, though, she dances, and when she’s not train­ing she’s work­ing to main­tain her­self phys­i­cally so she can con­tinue to per­form at a high level as she gets older. “I’m a bit of a loner,” Copeland says. “If I don’t have to be around a lot of peo­ple, I don’t like to. I have a re­ally small cir­cle of friends. I just love cook­ing and re­lax­ing.”

Nev­er­the­less, she has at least be­gun to en­ter­tain no­tions of what lies be­yond her danc­ing life. “It’s hard to even think about those things be­ing in the midst of my ca­reer right now,” she says. “I know I’ll be a part of the dance world, prob­a­bly write some more books. But I also cher­ish fam­ily so much. I think, grow­ing up, be­fore bal­let be­came my safe haven, my sib­lings and I were like this lit­tle vil­lage. We were to­gether, and we looked out for each other. So that just makes me want to value the lit­tle fam­ily I cre­ate one day even more.”

One of De­gas’s best-known bal­let works is Lit­tle Dancer Aged Four­teen, a sculp­ture of a young bal­le­rina lost in a mo­ment of her own. “I def­i­nitely feel like I can see my­self in that sculp­ture—she just seems con­tent but also re­served,” Copeland says. “I was re­ally shy and in­tro­verted at that age. I don’t even have an im­age in my head of what I re­mem­ber a bal­le­rina be­ing or ex­ist­ing be­fore I took a bal­let class. Bal­let was just the one thing that brought me to life.”


safe when I was on the stage, like no one could get to me.

It was the first time in my life that I felt pro­tected.”

Copeland re-cre­ates De­gas’s The Star

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit. Dress, Valentino. Head­dress and cor­sages, Wil­helm. Rib­bon, Mokuba.

FASH­ION ED­I­TOR: Michelle Jank

Dress re­hearsal. OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Copeland as De­gas’s Dancer (above). Top and skirt, Carolina Her­rera. Head­piece,

Hat­maker by Jonathan Howard. Rib­bon, Mokuba. On back­ground dancers: Dresses, Carolina Her­rera.

Pe­riod piece. THIS PAGE: Copeland as De­gas’s Lit­tle Dancer Aged Four­teen (above). Dress, Alexan­der Mcqueen. OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Copeland as Sway­ing

Dancer (Dancer in Green) (left). Dress, Os­car de la Renta. Head­piece, Hat­maker by Jonathan Howard. Rib­bon, Mokuba. On back­ground dancers (from left): Top and skirt, Em­po­rio Ar­mani. Dress, Al­berta Fer­retti.

Dress, Em­po­rio Ar­mani. Dress, Em­po­rio Ar­mani. Dress, Al­berta Fer­retti. Head­pieces, Hat­maker by Jonathan Howard.

Danc­ing with the star. THIS PAGE: Dress, Al­berta Fer­retti. OP­PO­SITE PAGE: leo­tard, Capezio. Skirt, Roberto Cavalli. See Where to buy for shop­ping de­tails. Hair: kiyo Igarashi for Oribe Hair Care; makeup:

bank Nat­danai for Tom Ford; prop styling: kevin Hert­zog. Special thanks to NYC Dance Project.

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