‘Bal­let is bro­ken’

She has toured with Prince and ad­vised Obama. But Misty Copeland hopes her new role in Dis­ney’s Nutcracker will give bal­let the shake-up it des­per­ately needs. The trailblazer talks to

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts - Lyn­d­sey Win­ship

‘ Bal­let was def­i­nitely my es­cape,” says Misty Copeland. “It was the first thing I’d ever ex­pe­ri­enced in my life that was mine – only mine, not my five other sib­lings’. It gave me a voice, made me feel pow­er­ful.”

When Copeland dis­cov­ered bal­let she was 13, liv­ing with her mother and sib­lings in a mo­tel in Cal­i­for­nia. She was a shy, slight child who rarely spoke and tried not to be no­ticed. Twenty-three years later, hers is the kind of trans­for­ma­tion story even bal­let might think far-fetched. In 2015, she be­came the first black fe­male prin­ci­pal dancer at Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre – and with that a spokesper­son, poster girl, and bona fide star. Barack Obama sought her out as an ad­viser, Prince in­vited her on tour, Spike Lee wants her in his films, and peo­ple queue to meet her at the stage door of the Metropoli­tan Opera House in New York.

And now the lat­est chap­ter in her real-life fairy­tale has be­gun to un­fold. Copeland is danc­ing in Dis­ney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a cinema re­vamp of the Christ­mas favourite star­ring Keira Knight­ley, He­len Mir­ren and Mor­gan Free­man.

Like all bal­let dancers, Copeland is pe­tite and per­fectly put to­gether, beam­ing with unerring pos­i­tiv­ity and a ready gig­gle as she sits in this Lon­don ho­tel room with a camel mac draped over her knees to keep warm.

This is a woman who’s had a tough life but seems to have come out of it with no hard edges. In bal­let, where many things on stage look much as they did a cen­tury ago, there are few women of colour in ma­jor com­pa­nies, and Copeland re­mem­bers the mo­ment when she knew she had to take on the man­tle of role model. She was watch­ing a doc­u­men­tary about the Bal­lets Russes that fea­tured pioneering black bal­le­rina Raven Wilkin­son. “I had this awak­en­ing,” she says. “I didn’t even know she ex­isted. I saw her and it was this un­ex­pected re­ac­tion. I was cry­ing. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have this big­ger pur­pose that I never even re­alised.’”

Copeland has ac­tively sought out op­por­tu­ni­ties to bring bal­let to new au­di­ences and to change its im­age, from speak­ing en­gage­ments to endorsements and book deals. When mil­lions of view­ers see her in an Un­der Ar­mour com­mer­cial, she says, “they will see a brown bal­le­rina and think, ‘Oh, that’s what a bal­le­rina looks like.’ When you can imag­ine your­self on the stage, es­pe­cially as a young per­son, it al­lows you to dream of do­ing any­thing.”

When she was a child, Copeland had no dreams of bal­let. The fam­ily moved a lot as her mother mar­ried and di­vorced sev­eral times, there was lit­tle money and Copeland kept her head down. But, in fact, she was al­ways a bal­le­rina – she just didn’t know it. She loved gross­ing out her broth­ers with what her hy­per flex­i­ble joints could do, but she had no idea she might have the per­fect physique for a par­tic­u­lar type of dance. She hated her skinny, long legs, big hands and “pin­head”.

Luck­ily, one of her teach­ers no­ticed. Copeland took her first bal­let class on a bas­ket­ball court at the lo­cal Boys and Girls Club, but it wasn’t un­til she stepped in­side a stu­dio, donned tights and leo­tard and looked at her­self in the mir­ror that this home­less teen re­alised she had fi­nally found home.

Copeland was 13, a very late age to start danc­ing for a pro­fes­sional, but she pro­gressed fast with teacher Cindy Bradley. When her mother could no longer take her across town to classes, Copeland moved in with Bradley (which led to a dif­fi­cult, highly pub­li­cised cus­tody bat­tle, a low point in Copeland’s life). At 18, she joined Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre’s stu­dio com­pany, then its corps de bal­let. But a se­ri­ous stress frac­ture, fol­lowed by sud­den weight gain af­ter the de­layed on­set of pu­berty, led to her con­fi­dence crash­ing.

Copeland cred­its her sur­vival to a se­ries of men­tors, mainly suc­cess­ful black women out­side dance, and to ABT’s di­rec­tor, Kevin McKen­zie. “He was sen­si­tive enough to see that I was a young girl on my own, had never re­ally had a sta­ble home. He did what he could to help me grow when other peo­ple within the artis­tic staff didn’t want to see me get those op­por­tu­ni­ties.” Be­cause you hadn’t paid your dues? “No, be­cause of my skin colour. Be­cause of my body. I know those things for a fact.”

As well as the overt racism, there were sub­tle sig­nals that this wasn’t her world. Un­til re­cently, pointe shoes only came in a “nude” colour that was pale pink. “What does it mean that we’re wear­ing pink tights?” she asks. “It’s be­cause that’s the colour you’re ex­pected to be.” Bal­let shoe maker Freed has just launched the UK’s first pointe shoes for darker skin tones (Gaynor Minden does a sim­i­lar range in the US), al­though Copeland still colours hers with pan­cake makeup. “It’s the lit­tle things that make you feel like you don’t be­long.”

Things are chang­ing, slowly. When Copeland ar­rived at ABT, which is based in New York, she

‘Some peo­ple didn’t want me to get op­por­tu­ni­ties – be­cause of my skin colour, be­cause of my body’

was the only black woman there. Now there are three. Au­di­ences are chang­ing too. “Es­pe­cially in the States – that’s some­thing I’ve seen open up so much in the past five years. To see, out­side the Met, a line stretch­ing from the door to the street of brown young peo­ple.”

But it’s not just about who’s on stage, it’s what they’re do­ing up there. “We’re get­ting them in the door,” says Copeland. “But now we have to keep them there. So I think we’re go­ing to have to evolve again with the sto­ries we’re telling, so peo­ple can con­nect with them.”

How much re­spon­si­bil­ity does an art form have to re­flect the world and send pos­i­tive mes­sages about race or gen­der? “I think it’s ex­tremely im­por­tant,” says Copeland. “Es­pe­cially with bal­let, if we don’t open our­selves up and evolve with the times, we’re not go­ing to be rel­e­vant and peo­ple aren’t go­ing to be in­ter­ested in com­ing. I un­der­stand be­com­ing a char­ac­ter, and that not ev­ery time you step on stage has to be some amaz­ing po­lit­i­cal state­ment, but I also think we have so much room in clas­si­cal dance to grow.”

In the film, Copeland plays a bal­le­rina in the land of toys come to life, danc­ing a bal­let that tells the story of the Four Realms – as the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knight­ley) and our hero­ine Clara (Macken­zie Foy) look on. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has taken the well-worn favourite, with its no­to­ri­ously weak plot, and given it some Hol­ly­wood drama-doc­tor­ing. It’s some­thing film does all the time – could bal­let not do the same? “Right!” says Copeland. “Ab­so­lutely!” The film, she says, gives more depth to a story “that can seem very light and cheesy”.

It also has a fem­i­nist slant. In the orig­i­nal tale, Herr Drosselmeyer is the maker of magical toys, but in the film Clara’s mother is a more tal­ented in­ven­tor. What’s more, Clara, some­thing of a by­stander in many Nutcracker bal­lets, is here heir to the Four Realms her mother cre­ated, and “a new kind of princess”.

If a com­pany like Dis­ney, syn­ony­mous with the pretty princess myth, can drag it­self into the 21st cen­tury on mat­ters of gen­der and race, can’t bal­let fol­low suit? “It’s scary for us to make change,” says Copeland. “It’s like, ‘Don’t fix what isn’t bro­ken.’ But in my opin­ion, it is bro­ken. The times are chang­ing and we have to catch up. I think the more we bring in newer peo­ple with fresh ideas be­hind the scenes – artis­tic di­rec­tors, chore­og­ra­phers – those things will change.”

There are plenty of peo­ple in bal­let who are do­ing ex­actly this (Ta­mara Rojo at English Na­tional Bal­let comes to mind, hav­ing com­mis­sioned Akram Khan to reimag­ine Giselle). But else­where, tra­di­tion reigns supreme and a 19th-cen­tury world­view per­me­ates many clas­sic bal­lets. Copeland men­tions the ex­otic east­ern fan­tasies La Bayadère and pirate tale Le Cor­saire. “You think of Cor­saire as this light thing, but it’s not re­ally. It’s slaves, these women chained up. I think we could have sto­ries that re­ally re­flect dif­fer­ent cul­tures in a fresh way, you know? Bal­let is worldly, so let’s rep­re­sent what we all are.”

To this end, Copeland has set up a pro­duc­tion com­pany that has lots of ideas in the works. She has also been swap­ping ideas with Spike Lee, who keeps push­ing her to act in his films. “I’m like, ‘No, I want you to help me cre­ate some­thing.’”

None­the­less, she’s en­joy­ing her on-cam­era mo­ment in The Nutcracker, a role that ce­ments what feels like a sud­den rise to star­dom but has ac­tu­ally been long in the mak­ing. De­spite her in­nate tal­ents, Copeland has al­ways been play­ing catch-up for her late start. She wasn’t pro­moted to prin­ci­pal dancer un­til the age of 33 (“very late”). But in the last few years, ev­ery­thing has come to­gether. She has even mar­ried her long-term boyfriend, lawyer Olu Evans.

“I was such a late bloomer,” she says, “in terms of my emo­tional growth and the en­vi­ron­ments I grew up in. I feel like I pro­gressed as a woman so late – but then when I did, it was all at once.” And now, it seems, there’s no stop­ping her.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is out now

‘You don’t have to make a po­lit­i­cal state­ment ev­ery time you go on stage – but we do have so much room to grow’

‘I have this big­ger pur­pose’ … Copeland in New York

Copeland with Sergei Pol­unin in Dis­ney’s Nutcracker re­boot

Top-level talks … with Pres­i­dent Obama in 2016

Baby I’m a star … on stage with Prince in 2011

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