Friday, March 28, 2008

Misty Copeland makes dance history

Compared to most would-be ballerinas, Misty Copeland came late to the art form. She didn't begin dancing until she was 13. However, only two years after her first lessons at the San Pedro Dance Center, Copeland took first place in the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards.

What Copeland did not anticipate was the emotional stress of being singled out as a role model, combined with the cultural isolation of being the only black dancer in the company.

"It's felt like a long, hard struggle to get here," she says. "It definitely wasn't as easy as it was when I started dancing and things were just happening. Getting into the company kind of opened my eyes. I think I wasn't as aware that I was pretty much always the only African-American girl in my class. It never really caught my eye until I got into the company. It was like, 'Wow, I'm the only African-American woman.' And ever since I joined, I've been the only one. There's not even an African-American guy in the company."

"They've never had a black woman make it past the corps de ballet. So it was kind of scary. I wondered if it could ever happen. It made me think about leaving several times. I've been in the company for seven years now, and I've watched black women come and go, auditioning, that are gorgeous, that don't get in. And you wonder why. And you see dancers in the company that you know are not nearly as good."

Before joining ABT, Copeland says, the question of her race never was that significant to her. But those around her, she said, knew it could be a problem.

"I think a lot of it was maybe kept away from me because I was so young," she says. "I would go away to do these guest scenes with one of my teachers (Charles Maplecq, a former ABT dancer). I remember we went away to South Dakota. He didn't specifically tell me, but I remember overhearing him talking to my mother, saying, 'I'm actually really nervous to bring her here, being a black girl and taking her to this small town to do a lead role.' Looking back on it now, oh my gosh, I never thought of that."

Speaking from the company's New York offices, ABT's artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, admits, "Ballet is a white man's art. It started in the French court. So it's going to take a long time for it to filter into other cultures. But I think the visual cliche of the all-white corps de ballet is crumbling. It's slowly breaking down.

"African-Americans don't have the kind of training that gets them far enough ahead to be dancing at this level by the time they're 17 or 18," he says. "That's something we're trying to address in our education system, to reach way out there and give everybody access to quality training. It's not a question of this being an exclusive club. (ABT has multiple Asian and Hispanic dancers). This is going to take a generation to fix."

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