Only around one per cent of dancers are accepted into major ballet companies like London’s Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Once accepted, just a few will work their way up the ranks from artists to the highest honour of principal dancer in their short performance careers – lasting on average 15 years. Fewer still accelerate through those ranks. Misty Copeland has done it, though – and she’s changed the course of dance history along the way.
Four years have passed since Copeland (now 36) was promoted to principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT) – the first black woman to do so in the company’s 75-year history. The occasion was at once a cause for celebration and a catalyst for the world, specifically the dance world, to acknowledge and in turn set about rectifying its diversity issue – which, as Copeland puts it, isn’t the “lack of black principal dancers, it’s the lack of black dancers, period”.
“It’s going to be a long time before we start to see change with the artistic staff – teachers of colour, and of course dancers on the stage,” she continues. “The investment is so deep, but it’s one I’m wholly committed to – we have to get more black and brown children into dance schools and then make sure they have the right training to take it to a professional level.” In order for that to happen, the diversity of the audience needs to improve too, and Copeland’s presence centre-stage, along with the 1.6 million followers of her Instagram, has already helped facilitate that. “Knowing there’s a black principal at ABT, the black community is going to come, because they feel a connection to it. When you don’t have that, if you don’t see yourself represented, how can you relate to ballet?”
Copeland’s influence is felt far beyond the US border and – not unlike the late greats who came before her, such as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and more recently the likes of Sylvie Guillem and Carlos Acosta – her talent and charisma transcend the stages of grand theatres. She collaborated with Prince on his Crimson and Clover music video back in 2009; during his second term as President, Barack Obama sought her out to be a member of the his advisory council on fitness, sports and nutrition; and in November, she appeared in her first feature-length film as the only ballerina to star in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. “To be a brown ballerina princess in this film is so amazing because young people will watch it and be like ‘oh that’s just what a ballerina of the future looks like’,” she says, before commending the depiction of the film’s protagonist Clara (Mackenzie Foy). “She’s so independent, strong, powerful and intelligent; she’s not waiting for a prince to save her – this is a new kind of Disney princess.”
Vogue meets Copeland at Albert Watson’s studio in New York’s SoHo. The Scottish photographer had worked with her on the 2019 Pirelli calendar – which, to the uninitiated, is continuing its dramatic evolution from old-school soft porn to inclusive artform – and chose Copeland to play one of four female leads in his cinematic work, entitled Dreams. Distancing itself yet further from its racy past, the calendar is presented in an archival box of 40 prints, foregoing the usual 13-page ring-bound format. “Each woman is depicted in a different scenario, and has different aspirations,” Watson explains. “Misty is an aspiring ballerina; Laetitia [Casta] is an artist; Julia [Garner] is a botanical photographer; and Gigi [Hadid] is an heiress-type character looking for dreams to pursue.” Men, meanwhile – dancers Sergei Polunin and Calvin Royal III, plus Alexander Wang (the first fashion designer ever to be featured in the calendar) – play supporting roles. It’s a welcome step change from Pirelli.
Copeland clearly relished working with Watson – it’s the first time they have collaborated, but their embrace when she readies to leave is almost familial – and while it’s her job to act out fantasies, once the curtain falls, she is a realist at heart. “It’s beautiful to be in a calendar like Pirelli, but I’m not this thing frozen in time on your wall. I’m a real person,” she says, highlighting ballet’s fixation with perfection as one of her least favourite things about the artform. “I fall, I stumble, I make mistakes and I learn from them. I think that’s important for young people to see, as well as the beautiful finished product – because when we show them the process, they understand, ‘Oh, they’re just like me. they’re humans, they’re artists, they’re athletes, and they work insanely hard to make it look as easy as possible’.”
The passion Copeland has for making ballet more accessible (“nothing in the world compares to how calcified ballet has stayed”) is driven by her own experiences. Growing up as one of six children to a single mother in Los Angeles, she remembers her family were often “struggling to survive, to live, to have food on the table. There was so much chaos,” she says. “And there was no real structure or discipline in my life; it was just survival.” When she was 13, the Boys Girls Club community centre she attended in San Pedro started offering free dance lessons, and there on the basketball court, she took her first ballet class – around eight years later than most of her peers would have done; her first myth-busting act in her ballet career. Recognising Copeland’s aptitude for dance (video footage taken around this time shows a young woman so comfortable on the pointes of her toes, it’s as though she was born walking on them) and that the window for becoming a professional dancer (between 17 and 19 years old) was fast approaching, her teacher Cindy Bradley realised they needed to act quickly if ever she was going have a career onstage.
So she could spend more time dancing, Copeland pulled out of school and went into a home study programme, even living with her dance tutor for a period of time. Just four years later, she was dancing with ABT – but there have been countless hurdles to overcome along the way.
Aside from a career-threatening mid-tibia stress fracture in 2012, there were individuals who proclaimed she’d never make it as a ballet dancer because she is “black, large chested, muscular”. From an early age, her mother forewarned her that “we live in a society where if you have black in you, you’re black – and that’s the way you’ll be treated”. Thankfully, when she came to New York, there were mentors who would take her under their wing, such as the television producer Susan Fales-Hill and Arthur Mitchell – the first black principal dancer in a major company (the New York City Ballet) and founder of the Harlem Dance Theatre – who passed away in September. “Arthur would come see me perform and we would see each other and talk afterwards. He would give me advice and corrections,” she remembers.
On Friday evening, after we speak, Copeland performs in a tribute to Mitchell at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem as part of a special event to commemorate World Aids Day (1 December) – helping to continue his legacy while forging one of her own. The onus of diversifying ballet, as she sees it, is on her now: “Just think how many amazing artists who could benefit from having this art form in their life are missing out because they’re not represented.”