Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Ballerina Misty Copeland

Washington, DC

American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone

Perhaps more than any other type of artist, the ballerina possesses a certain inexplicable mystique. The incredible grace and physicality required of ballet dancers makes them seem of another, more beautiful world. Misty Copeland is no exception. A soloist with New York’s American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Copeland began dancing at the relatively late age of 13. After only four years of training, she joined ABT’s studio company, eventually becoming a soloist with the professional company in 2007. Although in the midst of the ballet season, Copeland took time to talk with us about her dream roles, her views on the current state of ballet, and her experience as an African American dancer within the largely homogeneous ballet world.

NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?

MISTY COPELAND: My version of the artist's life is me and what I'm doing in my life. It's the dedication I’ve given to my art form every day since I was 13. It's the love I have for performing ballet, the history behind ballet, and what it means to be so honored to be a part of a company like ABT.

NEA: Why were you first drawn to dance, and to ballet in particular?

COPELAND: I was first drawn to dance because I felt a natural connection to music. Music was always played around my house. Not classical, but funk, soul, R&B, rock (from the 70s), and hip-hop. I loved to move, dance, and choreograph even before I took my first ballet class at 13. I was discovered, and told to take ballet because I had the physique and musicality. Once I started, I grew to love it. It came so naturally to me and I think I was craving an artistic outlet.

NEA: You started dancing at age 13, which is practically middle age in the ballet world. How did you catch up so quickly?

COPELAND: I caught up so quickly with my ballet training because I devoted everything to it. I took a year off from school and was taking up to three classes a day. I was in ABT after four years of training.

NEA: Do you remember your first time performing in front of an audience? What was it like?

COPELAND: I remember my first time performing in front of an audience. It was a recital. It was outside and I was 13 and I loved every moment. I can't remember what the music was, but my teacher choreographed a solo for me. I loved the response from the audience. I was hooked.

NEA: In 2007, you became the first black soloist at ABT in more than 30 years. How would you explain the paucity of color in the ballet world? How does this affect you?

COPELAND: The paucity of color in the ballet world is scary to me and other people of color, as well as to the ballet world. Dancers of color are different and not what audiences are used to seeing. Since ballet is such an old art form that’s built on history, maybe people feel like they shouldn’t try to change something that isn't broken. Also, I think black dancers fear they will be turned away and that they won't be accepted in this culture. The world has a view of what they think black body types are, and it doesn't fit the "ballet" mold. They think of flat feet and big butts. If you look at the bodies of black track runners, I'd say they are pretty on point in terms of what ballet bodies should look like. It's a stereotype. A variety of body types and shapes are in every race.

I also think that the ballerina is the ballet. She should be soft, delicate, and sylph-like. Black woman are thought of as strong and aggressive. Again a stereotype. It has affected me somewhat, but I've seen the way it affects black women around me more. I never had issues with my color before becoming a professional. Not until then did I realize I was the only black woman in my company. I do believe it has hindered me and the roles I have been allowed to do. It's slowly changing, but not without a fight from me and the determination I have to make it happen.

NEA: What do you do to mentally and physically prepare for each role?

COPELAND: The physical aspect of preparing for roles is a given. We rehearse up to nine hours a day to prepare for our seasons. That is the easy part. The mental part is the challenge. We wouldn't all be in a company as prestigious as ABT if we weren't physically capable, but what separates a dancer from a ballerina is how she becomes a character and actress on stage. I have taken acting classes and have been taught to research certain eras and the histories of ballets I'm doing. It's fun, but it also depends on your interpretation and how the audience relates to it.

NEA: What would be your dream role to dance?

COPELAND: I have a list of dream roles. I would love to dance Giselle, Nikiya and Gamzatti in La Bayadère, Juliet, and of course the ultimate---especially for a black woman---would be Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

NEA: Recently, there’s been a slew of articles declaring ballet dead or dying. What is your response to that? Why is it important to keep it alive?

COPELAND: I actually completely disagree with the comment that ballet is dead or dying. It hasn't been as relevant in decades as it is today. Pop culture, the movie industry, and the music industry all seem to be enamored with it right now. I think it's great for us. It's important to expose it in that way so that younger people are interested. The ballet audience has a reputation for being elite. It continues to generate the same type of people. I believe involving the rest of the world will keep it relevant and alive.

NEA: At the NEA, our motto is “Art Works.” What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?

COPELAND: To me, the phrase "Art Works" means that the word Art is endless. It's an amazing word and being an Artist is an honorable thing that not just anyone can claim or identify with. Art Works means endless possibilities.

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