The first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre had a year to remember, thanks to a documentary, “A Ballerina’s Tale”; her memoir; and that famous Under Armour ad.
Cherry Peace stood, feet firmly planted, at the stage door of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in October. She was waiting for Misty Copeland, who had just wrapped up a matinee performance of Paul Taylor’s “Company B” at the American Ballet Theatre, to kick off her toe shoes and exit.
There was no sign of Copeland, but Peace, 52, a writer who had traveled from Reno, Nev., expressly to see her, stayed rooted to the spot, hoping at least for a glimpse of her idol.
“When you get older,” she said, “there are certain things you want to do. Seeing Misty Copeland was on my bucket list.”
Peace was among legions of fans — schoolgirls and seniors, New Yorkers and visitors, balletomanes and assorted thrill seekers — who had thronged to Lincoln Center to see Copeland perform, in the Taylor ballet, and as Odile/Odette in “Swan Lake,” a crowning role for many dancers, and the first in the company for a black ballerina.
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Others were riveted as Copeland spun last summer across the Broadway stage as Ivy Smith in “On the Town,” her limited engagement igniting ticket sales. Audiences were no less transfixed to see Copeland, the subject of a documentary, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” overcome an injury that threatened to end her career.
Some fans could recite by rote fragments of the Misty Copeland canon: “They said her body type wasn’t right, but she just kept dancing,” Peace said. She went on to recite the by-now familiar catechism that Copeland is the first African-American female to be named principal dancer at the ABT.
And the first classical dancer since Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland executed their perfect pas de deux in the 1970s to captivate a general audience.
An unknown star
You would have to have lived on Saturn’s seventh ring to have missed that fact, or for that matter, Copeland’s repeatedly told saga of hardship, perseverance and ultimate triumph — one she chronicled in her 2014 memoir “Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina.” The book described her rise from a chaotic childhood, trailing her oft-married mother and six siblings from cramped apartments to motels, chasing fame and excellence under the wing of a well-to-do benefactor, and selected at 17 as one in a handful of African Americans to dance with the vaunted American Ballet Theatre.
It was a story recycled many times, on “60 Minutes,” in a Time cover profile, in the pages of The New Yorker, and once more Dec. 17 on ABC, when Barbara Walters named Copeland as one of the 10 Most Fascinating People of 2015. To say nothing of a flurry of glossies that extolled Copeland as a fashion plate.
All that fevered attention reached a crescendo last summer when Copeland emerged, calves rippling and en pointe, as the subject of “I Will What I Want,” a commercial for Under Armour, the athletic wear brand, that drew 4 million views on YouTube within a week of its release.
Indeed, and by Copeland’s own account, the last 12 months have been an annus mirabilis — a time during which she fulfilled a cherished goal.
“I’m not trying to dilute the ballet world,” she said last summer. “But for a long time I wanted to be at the forefront of pop culture.”
That Copeland, 33, has so swiftly hit her mark raises a question: Just how and why did such a metamorphosis occur?
Talent and drive played roles, of course, as did Copeland’s uncommon beauty and athleticism. And there was the matter of race. “Her blackness was a big part, obviously,” said Nelson George, the culture critic and director of “A Ballerina’s Tale.”
“She isn’t a conventional-looking ballerina,” George said, Copeland’s 5-foot-2 frame and womanly curves rendering her relatable to an ever-widening public. “She could be one of those athletic girls in your gym,” he said. “In your mind you could be that girl.”
But until this year, Copeland was little known outside the hermetic realm of dance.
“She was a star waiting to be identified,” said Kevin Plank, Under Armour’s chief executive, who signed her to the first of a series of commercials well before her reputation crested.
“She had that very special ‘it’ factor, but she was no longer 20 years old,” Plank said. “Like all of us, she had the same question: ‘Do people notice?’ ”
En pointe on race
A handful of years ago, the vast public had not. Copeland had champions, to be sure, especially among a dwindling number of influential American dance critics.
“She is a deeply expressive artist, with a unique, lush and very personal way of moving,” Sarah L. Kaufman exulted in The Washington Post in February. “At its very best, her dancing transcends her body, leading us beyond her perfect pirouette to … well, the wonder of life.”
She also has detractors, “She’s admirable but without striking individuality,” Alastair Macaulay, a critic for The New York Times, wrote last June, adding, damningly, that her tendency of tucking her head down and looking hard in “Swan Lake,” “makes her look unclassical.”
No matter. Along with her talent, she had a story to sell.
It was, in the assessment of Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, “a fascinating human triumph story, less about being the first African-American dancer to become a principal with the company and more about the adversity she went through to obtain her dreams.”
In 2011, Gilda Squire, an entertainment publicist, attended a New Year’s Eve party and overheard parts of that narrative.
“They were talking about a black ballerina who danced en pointe on Prince’s piano,” Squire said. “None of the people knew her name. But what got the room interested was the idea that ‘Wow, here’s an African-American dancer at one of the top companies in her world.’ ”
Squire, who at Copeland’s request became her manager (ballerinas don’t really have publicists, she explained), remembered that at the time: “ ‘The Black Swan’ and Natalie Portman were definitely on the radar. People were thinking about ballet more than they normally would.”
What better time, Squire reasoned, to try to get her into the mainstream: “That was my goal.”
A portion of Copeland’s spectacular leap to mainstream celebrity may be lodged in her character, deriving less from a conscious pursuit of fame than a driving self-doubt.
Copeland practices relentlessly — taking her place at the barre for five to seven hours each day, even on performance days. There’s no rest for a dancer, “no faking it in the ballet world,” as she said in an interview.
There is also a sort of evangelism at work. She is of mixed race, but, as George pointed out, she embraces her blackness, grasping every opportunity to speak out as a role model, getting out her message that a person’s so-called flaws, skin color among them, need be no hurdle to success.
“I will continue to talk about race,” she said. “I think that’s part of my purpose.”
While the ballet for most dancers is an all-consuming vocation, Copeland stands out for her passion to connect.
“She doesn’t live in a bubble,” McKenzie said. “Somehow she does not exclude the outside world.” On or off the stage, her credo, he said, “is ‘What can I learn today?’”