Misty Copeland’s celebrity skips ahead of her artistry

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY SARAH KAUF­MAN

Misty Copeland is hav­ing a Bey­oncé kind of mo­ment. But does the media at­ten­tion she has whipped up have any­thing to do with her art?

Even with­out Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre’s re­cent pro­mo­tion of Copeland to its top rank, mak­ing her the first black prin­ci­pal bal­le­rina in that com­pany’s 75-year history, the dancer has made an ex­tra­or­di­nary break­through into pop­u­lar cul­ture. With her Un­der Ar­mour ads, her best-selling memoir and, in April, her Time mag­a­zine cover, she has trav­eled far be­yond the world of bal­let.

Copeland, 32, in­hab­its a realm open to a very few celebri­ties — Bey­oncé is one — who tran­scend their field and be­come house­hold names.

No bal­let dancer has done that for more than 40 years. The last one was Mikhail Barysh­nikov, who elec­tri­fied the public imag­i­na­tion by de­fect­ing from the So-

viet Union in 1974 and land­ing in New York. Less than a year later, he was on the cover of Time. Tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances fol­lowed, along with movie-star posters of the bal­let star in a barely there fish­net shirt. He also had film roles, a fra­grance and body­wear line, and a ma­nia of lust­ful ado­ra­tion wher­ever he went.

But lit­tle of the mass-media at­ten­tion paid to Barysh­nikov had to do with his bal­let tech­nique, though by the time he de­fected, it was per­fect be­yond com­pare and only grew in mag­nif­i­cence. As with Copeland— and Isadora Dun­can, and even Mar­got Fonteyn and Ru­dolf Nureyev — what cap­tured the greater public in­ter­est be­yond the dance world were other parts of the story.

In that May 1975 Time cover ar­ti­cle, Barysh­nikov was de­picted not only as a Casanova but also as a busy one: “He has con­ducted af­fairs with sev­eral women — among them dancers he has worked with — since ar­riv­ing in the West last sum­mer.” That was in the sec­ond para­graph. The ar­ti­cle goes on to men­tion his skinny-dip­ping and pref­er­ence for “clothes — and chicks— from the West.”

A het­ero­sex­ual male bal­let dancer — this was news, in the eyes of many.

It also was the typ­i­cal for­mula for an artist-turned-celebrity: a per­sonal story and a per­son­al­ity — real or man­u­fac­tured — that cap­tures the times and the Amer­i­can public.

Barysh­nikov “came in with such back story drama,” says Dou­glas Son­ntag, di­rec­tor of dance at the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts. His de­fec­tion, Son­ntag says, “had the spies and Cold War thing go­ing on . . . but he was also sexy as hell. So sud­denly, we had some­one who could dance but also set hearts aflut­ter.”

“Per­son­al­i­ties are cru­cial to the suc­cess of any medium,” says Amy Hen­der­son, the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery’s his­to­rian emerita, who spe­cial­izes in media-gen­er­ated celebrity cul­ture. Dun­can, the mod­ern dance pi­o­neer who be­came a global star, “evoked the ‘ new woman,’ ” Hen­der­son says. “That was her state­ment, and she cap­tured the mo­ment” at the dawn of the 20th cen­tury.

“It has al­most noth­ing to do with tal­ent,” Hen­der­son adds. “There’s some­thing ex­plo­sive about these per­son­al­i­ties, that they go be­yond our mun­dane, ev­ery­day lives.”

Copeland’s story of per­se­ver­ance has a bright, shin­ing qual­ity sim­i­lar to that of Barysh­nikov’s tale of es­cape. Not only did she rise to the top of her art form— and it’s not easy for any­one to go that far in bal­let — but she also came from a tough, im­pov­er­ished back­ground, started her train­ing late, at age 13, and broke through a color bar­rier.

New York City Bal­let has had two African Amer­i­can prin­ci­pal dancers, both men, with the first, Arthur Mitchell, de­but­ing in 1955. Both Mitchell and Al­bert Evans, the sec­ond, en­joyed long-term, well-rounded ca­reers. ABT en­listed African Amer­i­can dancer Desmond Richard­son as a prin­ci­pal in 1997, but in his brief stay there (he left in 1998, re­turn­ing as a guest in 2007), his star­ring roles were largely lim­ited to the ti­tle fig­ure in “Othello.”

The tim­ing of Copeland’s pro­mo­tion, on June 30, added to the news value. It was es­pe­cially pow­er­ful in light of the Charleston, S.C., mas­sacre of nine African Amer­i­cans less than two weeks be­fore and the po­lice-in­volved deaths of African Amer­i­cans in Fer­gu­son, Mo., and Bal­ti­more.

Add to this the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion es­tab­lish­ing a right to same-sex mar­riage and South Carolina’s de­ci­sion to re­move the Con­fed­er­ate flag from the state­house grounds, and Copeland’s in­te­gra­tion of ABT’s top rank fits into a net­work of top­pling con­ven­tions.

But she was a media phe­nom­e­non even with­out her pro­mo­tion. By early spring, she was seen as the kind of break­out star that Time wanted on its cover as one of the 100 Most In­flu­en­tial Peo­ple, says Rad­hika Jones, the mag­a­zine’s deputy man­ag­ing editor.

“We’re look­ing for peo­ple who aren’t just great at the par­tic­u­lar thing that they do but who have the abil­ity to cross over into other fields,” says Jones, who over­sees the Time 100 is­sue. “Misty Copeland makes you look twice and think twice about what con­tem­po­rary bal­let could be. And this is what the cover of Time mag­a­zine is for, to show peo­ple who are break­ing bound­aries and in­spir­ing young women and men.”

She likens Copeland’s cam­paign for bal­let di­ver­sity to ad­vances made by women in science and tech­nol­ogy and in male-dom­i­nated sports. As an ex­am­ple, Jones men­tions Ser­ena Wil­liams push­ing for pay eq­uity across gen­ders in ten­nis.

“It’s not enough to get up and do what you do,” Jones says. “You have to talk about it and make peo­ple aware that what you’re do­ing is not easy or cus­tom­ary.”

This is ab­so­lutely Copeland’s forte. She has spo­ken and writ­ten mov­ingly about her strug­gles and self-dis­ci­pline. But what about her artistry, how well she dances? This facet of her story is rarely men­tioned.

“The media blitz isn’t about bal­let; it’s about other things,” says Lynn Garafola, a dance history pro­fes­sor at Barnard Col­lege. She notes that when Nureyev and Fonteyn, of Lon­don’s Royal Bal­let, fa­mously got busted at a 1967 pot party in San Fran­cisco, it was front-page news. Who cared what depth they had brought to their danc­ing ear­lier that night? The spotlight was on the fur- cloaked stars be­ing trun­dled off in a pa­trol wagon (and on their sud­den aura of out­law cool).

“It has a lot more to do with how the media is treat­ing very tal­ented peo­ple,” Garafola adds. “Nureyev and Barysh­nikov got an amount of media cov­er­age that no other bal­let dancer could’ve dreamed of sim­ply be­cause they had de­fected at the height of the Cold War from the other side.”

Like them, Copeland is a spe­cial mag­net for that Holy Grail of any clas­si­cal art form: young peo­ple.

Copeland has made a point of con­nect­ing with her young fans, says her man­ager, Gilda Squires. Squires started work­ing with Copeland in 2011, a few years af­ter the dancer rose to ABT’s mid­dle rank of soloist, and she ne­go­ti­ated Copeland’s Un­der Ar­mour and Diet Dr. Pep­per deals. “As much as her bal­let ca­reer is very busy, and that’s her num­ber one pri­or­ity, it’s im­por­tant for her to in­ter­act with her fans and have one- onone ex­pe­ri­ences,” Squires says. “What peo­ple are drawn to is, she seems like them. It’s not like she’s way above them; she’s right there with them.”

But where Copeland dif­fers from other dancers with celebrity sta­tus — Nureyev, Barysh­nikov, Fonteyn and the like — is that they were known as artists of the high­est or­der first. Only af­ter that did they break through to be­come big names in pop cul­ture, by virtue of their per­sonal sto­ries and cir­cum­stances. And so the side trips into film roles and books and en­dorse­ments did not im­pair their de­vel­op­ment as great dancers. Copeland is do­ing it a bit back­ward.

As a new prin­ci­pal, and a late starter, she is still a work in progress, though she has gone fur­ther than any bal­le­rina in build­ing up her celebrity, and in pur­su­ing wide-rang­ing ac­tiv­i­ties be­yond bal­let. Just last week, she an­nounced that she’ll star in the Broad­way mu­si­cal “On the Town” for two weeks, start­ing Aug. 25. She’ll have to study act­ing and singing for the role, both new for her. Man­ag­ing the enor­mous media at­ten­tion, and driv­ing it, as well as turn­ing to novel pro­fes­sional en­deav­ors, puts her in un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory for a con­tem­po­rary bal­let dancer still de­vel­op­ing her tech­nique and style.

There is truly noth­ing con­ven­tional about Copeland. She was not go­ing to qui­etly toil away in the stu­dio in the hopes of gain­ing no­tice. And she seems to have no plans to do so now. That wor­ries at least one ob­server.

“I don’t think one can com­pletely sep­a­rate the media around Copeland from the fact that she has gen­er­ated it her­self, in the sense that there is a PR firm,” says Garafola, not­ing Copeland’s ads, her memoir and “any num­ber of things that were part of this media cam­paign for her to be pro­moted to a prin­ci­pal dancer. Now she’s achieved it, and has turned around and gone to Broad­way. I am dis­ap­pointed.”

Garafola says that given Copeland’s age, she doesn’t have many years left at the height of her phys­i­cal pow­ers. “She has an ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing to seal her claim to high-bal­le­rina sta­tus, through all the ma­jor roles, and to work fur­ther on her ‘Swan Lake.’ It’s a role that chal­lenges bal­leri­nas over a life­time, and I think it’s more sig­nif­i­cant than do­ing a Broad­way show.”

In mak­ing history at ABT, Copeland has be­come a pop-cul­ture icon. But why should her story stop here? She could be­come not only a cul­tur­ally im­por­tant bal­le­rina but also a great bal­le­rina. If she chooses the road to artis­tic promi­nence, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence through guest ap­pear­ances with the premier Euro­pean com­pa­nies, deep­en­ing her work on the ma­jor bal­lets, de­vel­op­ing a per­sonal style and at­tract­ing the lead­ing chore­og­ra­phers to cre­ate roles for her, she will have to make choices about how she spends her time.

Copeland has up­ended the equa­tion. She has been a celebrity for sev­eral years, but she is not yet a fin­ished artist. The ques­tions now are: Can she be both? And if not, which will she give up?


ABOVE: Misty Copeland, shown per­form­ing in “Swan Lake” last year in Aus­tralia, danced the bal­let’s lead role, Odette/ Odile, last month in New York. As a new prin­ci­pal dancer for Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre, she is still a work in progress as a bal­le­rina. Un­like break­out celebrity dancers of the past, she is not yet known as an artist of the first or­der. BE­LOW: Dancer­sMikhail Barysh­nikov and Pa­tri­ci­aMcBride per­form in 1978.


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