The Metropolitan Opera House debut of Misty Copeland in American Ballet Theatre’s production of “Swan Lake” last Wednesday (June 24) was everything it could and should be —an afternoon filled with palpable emotion—deafening, ecstatic applause at her first entrance, as the Swan Queen, and at the conclusion of each section. As a fitting coda, it was announced today (June 30) that Copeland has been promoted to principal dancer, making her the first African American ballerina to reach the top at the 75-year-old company, considered one of the top ballet companies in the world.
Paying homage during that historic performance last week was a star-studded audience (Judith Jamison, Debbie Allen, Star Jones, Jacques d’Amboise, and Damian Woetzel) all in attendance to see the woman who has become arguably America’s biggest ballet star of the moment.
Curtain call tributes by two historic African American ballerinas—former Houston Ballet star Lauren Anderson and former Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo ballerina Raven Wilkinson—celebrating Copeland’s achievement further cemented the significance of the occasion, the first time a black woman has starred in this role for a major American company at the Metropolitan Opera House.
And, yes, there was a glorious, thoughtful, often moving, always intriguing performance by Copeland. That this, the dancing, is mentioned last by no means signals that it is the least important. If this were anyone else, the actual dance performance would be, easily, the most important thing.
But Copeland’s debut at the famed Met, though not her debut in the role (she first performed it with ABT in Australia in January and was featured in a Washington Ballet production in April) was a moment filled with historical significance. New York, after all, is universally recognized as the dance capital of the world; particularly with ABT— recognized as one of the worlds most renowned companies with its own storied history.
And, too, there was the significance in performing “Swan Lake,” one of the most famous and most challenging roles in the classical ballet idiom. In performing the dual roles of the good and pure White Swan Queen—Odette, and her evil alter ego —Odile, a ballerina is tested with not only bringing a multifaceted interpretation to the ballet, but in showcasing the prodigious technical abilities that call upon the full spectrum of classical ballet’s pyrotechnical feats.
Finally, there are numerous backstage tales in ballet lore of black women being told to lighten their skin with powder or otherwise denigrated for having dark skin that might somehow mar the look of the ballet’s white-costumed sections.
So into this gulf of legend, expectations and history leapt Copeland on that historic Wednesday afternoon. And from her first entrance to her last leap in the ballet’s final scene, Copeland’s every move was met with ecstatic roars of approval.
To cynical observers, this may simply have been the overenthusiastic result of months of hype. Copeland, is after all, a media darling.
Her story is compelling stuff—a glamorous ballerina, tapped by the superstar musician Prince; a muscular beauty in pointe shoes in a now famous Under Armour underwear ad about embracing one’s uniqueness; a life story of growing up poor and shuttling between welfare hotels with her family while studying ballet at a local Boys and Girls Club. And yes, a black woman in an overwhelmingly white ballet world who has unabashedly declared that she wants to ascend to the top of the classical ballet world.
But Copeland is a lovely dancer who has, with each new plumb role, demonstrated promise, and a real sense for finding the nuances of a character. As seen in her debut in “Romeo and Juliet” and here, in “Swan Lake,” the test now will be to see how well and how deeply Copeland can plunge into the roles she’s been given.
In her New York City “Swan Lake” debut, it was, somewhat surprisingly, the soulful White Swan, where she made the biggest impact. We know Copeland as a technical powerhouse. But her White Swan was a creature of great sensitivity and vulnerability. It was an interpretation that still needs room to mature and grow. But some things, such as the use of her arms and her well thought out approach to the White Swan’s mystical power already are being employed to marvelous effect.
Surprisingly, Copeland’s Black Swan was somewhat lacking. True, she did not complete the traditional 32 fouette turns associated with the superhuman dazzling power of Odile. That, alone, wasn’t the problem. Many a ballerina has either stumbled through these turns or, opted to substitute pique turns entirely or, like Copeland, halfway through the sequence.
But Copeland’s Black Swan, though sharp and filled with attack and cunning, didn’t seem as thoughtfully considered as her Odette had been. It’s almost as if Copeland had focused on her Odette so much that her Odile was a bit of an afterthought.
True, some aspects were obviously given due consideration, such as Odile’s taking direction from the wicked von Rothbart who has sent the Black Swan to trick the Prince into breaking his vow of love for the White Swan. But, this is one aspect where Copeland still has work to do to complete her interpretation of the dual role.
However, there’s no question that Copeland deserves more opportunities to deepen her interpretation and grow in this and other roles. Many had speculated that she would soon be elevated to principal dancer status. Tuesday’s news confirmed the rumors. Regardless of her official rank, there’s no question that Copeland is more than just hype. She is a dancer who is showing a tantalizing potential for artistry.
—Karyn D. Collins