By MARY C. CURTIS
CHARLOTTE, N.C.-When Misty Copeland was promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre this summer — the first African-American woman to reach that pinnacle in the company’s 75-year history — the significance of her accomplishment extended far beyond the ballet world.
She was already famous, from TV appearances, a Time magazine cover, a Prince video, a memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” an Under Armour ad viewed millions of times and more. Yet in an art form refined in the courts of Europe, where black faces are seldom seen onstage, Copeland’s news was special. It smashed stereotypes of who black women are and what they can be.
At a news conference at the Metropolitan Opera House, Copeland realized that. “I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level.” But, she continued, “At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation.
Copeland has always credited those who have come before, the talented dancers whose careers were limited by notions about the capabilities of African Americans, as well as raw racism. Her mentor Raven Wilkinson faced the Ku Klux Klan when she toured the South with the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s. (Wilkinson stood with Copeland at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year at the premiere of “A Ballerina’s Tale,” a documentary about Copeland.)
More subtle than the Klan, though, have been the assumptions and stereotypes about the bodies and temperament of African-American women, known and experienced by many, including Ayisha McMillan Cravotta . She is Director of Charlotte Ballet Academy, the professional company’s school, which instructs students of all ages from beginner to pre-professional levels. From the age of 2 through 29, she was a dancer who worked, studied and lived classical ballet in schools and companies that traveled around the world.
As a dancer at Charlotte Ballet (then named North Carolina Dance Theatre), Cravotta created the role of Tinker Bell in “Peter Pan,” choreographed by company president and artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and was the first African-American ballerina to star as Clara in the company’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
“In order to change the way we think about dancers of color, particularly black women, we have to see that we can be celebrated,” Cravotta, 37, said. “People really can embrace who she is,” Cravotta said of Copeland. “That’s what a principal dancer is. Look at Patricia McBride,” she said, referencing the New York City Ballet star, Kennedy Center honoree and associate artistic director and master teacher at Charlotte Ballet. “Look at how she is beloved.”
The cultural stereotype of the strength of black women can be positive. “But what carries with that is invulnerability or assertiveness or aggression or anger that stands in conflict with the way we feel a ballerina should be,” said Cravotta. “She should be strong but she should be vulnerable. Giselle dies of a broken heart.” For African-American men, there are stereotypes, but “the picture of a strong, virile, dynamic, energetic man fits what we feel a man should be in ballet.” For a woman, the ideal is “delicate but ephemeral, vulnerable but virtuosic. It hurts me to see that too few people see that a black woman can embody that.”
Copeland’s rise chips away at those assumptions of “what we think is beauty, what we think is vulnerability, what we think is versatility,” said Cravotta. “Parents of African-American dancers needed to see it. Dancers themselves needed to see it. … Choreographers and artistic directors needed to see it.”
When she danced in the corps at Houston Ballet, Cravotta said there were never any fewer than three African-American women in the company, with Ben Stevenson as a supportive artistic director. Pioneering African-American principal Lauren Anderson was, Cravotta said, a “marvelous” mentor, role model and friend. “She wasn’t ever afraid to be herself.”
Copeland’s example reinforces 18-year-old Lauren Dorn’s decision to become a professional ballet dancer. After a recent demanding pointe class with guest instructor Valentina Kozlova, a former principal dancer with the Bolshoi and New York City Ballets, Dorn described Copeland as a symbol of hope. “It’s encouraging for me to say there’s someone else who has walked this path.”
“She came from a home that didn’t have a lot of money growing up; she has a body that’s suitable for dance but different from the norm that’s stereotypical,” said Dorn, of Wake Forest, N.C., who has been dancing since she was 9 and is immersed in Charlotte Ballet’s intensive summer session. She said Copeland, whom she saw in “Nutcracker” at ABT, “has worked so hard for so many years, through her injuries, through people telling her ‘no you cannot do this,’ she just kept going. To see her success is very heartwarming.”
Terrence Meadows of Columbus, Ohio, also participating in Charlotte Ballet’s intensive classes this summer, got the chance to talk with Copeland when he participated in an ABT program. The 19-year-old said she gave him needed advice to take the time to concentrate on his health and recovery after hip surgeries; ballet would be there when he was ready to come back, she told him. “She’s otherworldly,” he said, “one of those people put on this planet for a greater good.”
Bonnefoux said he would like to work with Copeland one day – “now everybody wants to.” Charlotte Ballet’s eclectic repertoire, which includes classic, contemporary and cutting-edge works, might be a draw. “The little girls now going to auditions know there is room for them,” Bonnefoux said. Though he said it can be difficult to have more diverse companies, “we’re doing well in Charlotte Ballet.”
At ABT, along with Copeland, Stella Abrera was promoted to principal dancer, the first Filipino American to hold that rank with the company.
The Charlotte Ballet has had a partnership with Dance Theatre of Harlem since 2013. Working with Virginia Johnson, a founding member, former principal dancer and current artistic director of DTH, the program offers places in Charlotte Ballet’s second company to two of DTH school’s top students. The effort is supported by the annual Step Up event, which helps the company develop, recruit and retain dancers of color.
Bonnefoux met Copeland when he and his wife, Patricia McBride, went to Washington for her Kennedy Center Honors celebration; Copeland danced in the McBride tribute.
“She will be a role model,” said McBride, who danced with Arthur Mitchell when both were principals at New York City Ballet. Mitchell, an African-American pioneer at NYCB, went on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem school after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“She deserves to be named a principal,”” said McBride of Copeland. “It will be so interesting where she goes from here.” McBride said the Charlotte Ballet dancers who accompanied her to Washington were so impressed with Copeland, “how hard she worked. Her beautiful spirit shows offstage.”
Copeland’s high profile came with the help of her manager Gilda Squire, of Squire Media and Management IncMedia & Management Inc., who thought it was important to keep the emphasis on the dancer’s ballet goals even as she appeared in a variety of media outlets, including a breakthrough New York Magazine feature.
“I was particularly moved last Halloween when there were numerous girls — and even some young women — dressed up as ballerinas,” she said, “several as The Firebird, the ballet which Misty performed in the lead role with American Ballet Theatre in 2012.”
Squire said that ABT’s Project Plié is moving forward in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs, the organization where Copeland took her first ballet lesson, and that Naazir Muhammad, who grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and was not the typical candidate for a career in ballet, just signed with ABT’s Studio Company. His twin, Shaakir, is in advanced classes at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, she said. “This past Met season, I saw excited girls, young women and men, older women and men of all racial and economic backgrounds at the ballet. … And you know what? They enjoyed the experience and said they’d come back.”
In August, Copeland will be making her Broadway debut, dancing into the lead female role of the musical “On the Town” for two weeks.
For Cravotta, it all means that “when I’m reaching my hand out to a young African-American dancer, when I’m saying I want you to try this, I think this could really be for you and I want you to work harder at this than you’ve ever worked for anything, it’s not me standing there alone with brown skin — that metaphorically Misty Copeland is standing there with me.”
Mary C. Curtis, a journalist based in Charlotte, N.C., covers politics, culture and race as a contributor to NPR, The Root, Washington Post, Women’s Media Center, MSNBC and WCCB-TV Charlotte. A senior facilitator with The OpEd Project, she has worked at The New York Times and Charlotte Observer.)