By Nick Harkin
In the eyes of most ballet fans, American Ballet Theatre stands alone. The company, which will perform the classic Giselle at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University March 22-25, has a singular reputation for excellence, a legendary history, sumptuous production values, and a sheer grandeur that makes its appearance in any city an event.
Even the United States Congress, which increasingly never seems to agree on anything, came together in 2006 to herald American Ballet Theatre (ABT) as “America’s National Ballet Company.”
ABT’s dancers’ requisite dedication to their craft would be cliché if it were not so true. Those hoping to join the ABT ranks typically start dance training shortly after learning to walk and dedicate any waking hour not in school to perfecting ballet’s rigorous techniques with an unwavering intent on joining the company’s elite corps.
Misty Copeland, one of ABT’s biggest rising stars, would appear almost to be an overnight sensation when compared to some of her colleagues at the ballet barre.
“I was a just typical child,” she laughs. “I did not discover ballet until I was 13. Prior to that I had no formal dance training and I had no idea I could make a career out of it.”
She was one of six children living with a single mother (who often worked two jobs) when she took her first dance class at a Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club. Up until then, her interests were decidedly more “Mariah Carey” than Tchaikovsky.
Despite the late start, Copeland’s body-type perfectly matched that of an ideal dancer: long, lean legs, arms and neck; ultra-lean torso; the ability to effortlessly turn out from the hip; the ability to arch her feet just so. More importantly, she demonstrated a grace and strength that most dancers acquire only after years of dedication.
“My first teacher told me, ‘Wow. You have so much natural ability. I think you have the potential to become a professional ballet dancer,” Copeland recalls.
“I think I was unusual as a child in that I approached everything I did with an extremely strong work ethic. I never felt as though I was pushed into it. I think I was born to do it. I loved working hard and wanted to be the best that I could be.”
Her first experience seeing ballet was when ABT came to Los Angeles a year later. She was given a ticket to see Argentinean-born prodigy Paloma Hererra and Spaniard Angel Corella, then only a few years older than Copeland, dance the challenging lead roles in Don Quixote.
“I completely fell in love with them and the company,” she remembers. “I was instantly blown away.”
Rigorous training ensued, culminating in two summer training intensives at ABT’s New York home.
Misty says, “At age 16, I was offered a contract with the ABT studio company, which I declined. I had only been dancing for three years. My teachers and my mother knew that I needed more time and wanted me to finish high school.”
By age 17, she was touring China as a member of ABT’s corps de ballet, and her assent at the company has been steady and rapid. She was promoted to soloist in 2007.
Copeland will dance a featured role in Giselle at the Auditorium Theatre at the Saturday, March 21 matinee.
On March 30, she will premiere in the leading role of a new version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, re-imagined for the 21st Century by superstar choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. That performance has special meaning as it will be in her hometown of Los Angeles.
“Misty is enormously versatile,” ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie recently told Dance Magazine. “She knows how to listen, realize and apply. She is a real representation of the American dancer. I obviously believe in Misty. She has earned everything she has achieved.”
As one of the few African-American dancers to achieve this level of international success, Copeland often volunteers to discuss her achievements in the hopes of inspiring young people, particularly Blacks who have little exposure to dance.
On March 12, at the request of Ald. Sandi Jackson and U.S Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., she addressed 50 school children at Thornton Fractional High School via Skype as part of the Jesse Jackson Leadership Institute.
“I am happy and honored to be in this position and to represent Black dancers. There have been many Black ballerinas who have come before me and I don’t think it should be their ‘duty’ to speak about it,” said Copeland.
“It’s okay if they just want to be a dancer and not ‘represent’ for an entire race. But I have kind of fallen into this position and I am more than happy to share my experiences because I see the effect it has on young dancers, and how encouraging it is for them to hear from me.”
For tickets to the American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle Click here.