Play Misty for me

An ABT soloist finds her Prince.

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ON YOUR TOES Copeland performs the pas de trois from Swan Lake.

ON YOUR TOES Copeland performs the pas de trois from Swan Lake. Photograph: Gene Schiavone

There’s a certain video circulating on the Internet that, on the surface, has nothing to do with princes at American Ballet Theatre, but with the very Prince himself. Misty Copeland, handpicked by the Minneapolis rocker to star in his new “Crimson and Clover” video, is, of course, a soloist at ABT distinguished by her elegant rigor in classical ballets, natural affinity for more contemporary dances and, of late, a sparkling aptitude for acting. In classical ballet, black dancers are rare. Copeland, 26, is more than an inspiring performer, but one of the few examples of women who have broken the color barrier. During ABT’s spring season, which kicks off Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House, Copeland will perform Gulnare in Le Corsaire, as well as leading roles in Paul Taylor’s Airs and George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. For the latter, Copeland, a recipient of a 2008 Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Arts, received coaching by Merrill Ashley. She spoke about the upcoming season at ABT’s studios.

Is this the first time you’re dancing Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux?
I’ve never done it. When I first starting learning it, I was working with Kevin McKenzie and Clinton Luckett just to get the basics and to learn the steps, but I actually was coached by Merrill Ashley. Recently, we worked together because of this Annenberg Fellowship that I’ve been given. It’s so amazing. I was going to work with her on Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and on Theme and Variations—just to do them—before I was cast. It’s been sort of a wake-up call because I feel like a lot of the Balanchine ballets are hard for me. That’s one reason why I wanted to work with Merrill; I know that is a weakness of mine—moving fast and never having trained in Balanchine. It was exciting to work with her and it was very different from what I thought Balanchine was. You think you want to distort things, but it is very classical; it’s all about being up on your legs. I have so far to go, but I’m aware. [Laughs] She’s just someone I admire and who has taught me so much in the short time that we worked together.

Did you apply for the Annenberg Fellowship?
No. Kevin selected dancers. I’d never heard about it before. I think this is the first year they’ve used dancers. In the past, they’ve used a lot of musicians, singers, actors—all professionals.

Did you choose Ashley or was she chosen for you?
We were allowed to choose anyone we wanted to work with. I’ve worked with Susan Jaffe a lot. Just for fun, on our time off, I worked with her on Giselle, just to have the experience. It’s a role that I’ve always wanted to do. Susan also coached me a little bit on Gulnare for Le Corsaire. I worked with Cynthia Gregory on Swan Lake; she’s such a great person. And I also have been working with an acting coach a little bit, Byam Stevens. He coached Kevin when he danced, and they’re very close friends; he also worked with Susan through most of her career. He has no dance training at all, but has developed his own method of incorporating theater and ballet and it’s been so cool to work with him. It’s not just coming from a physical-dance point of view. When I worked on Giselle, I actually got to have both of them in the studio at the same time. They worked on Giselle together when she was dancing it. It was amazing to have that.

When did you work with Jaffe?
The company was on a layoff. This was right before we went to London [in March].

Why did you pick Ashley?
I worked with Merrill a little bit when she came and set Ballo della Regina. I never saw her perform live, but just from watching videos and working with her—she’s part of the last generation of dancers who worked with Balanchine who is also really still up and going and setting things.

And I’ve watched her a few times—she is blessedly clear.
Yes. Exactly. She gets the point across. There’s no beating around the bush and I love that. I love to just get it done and she’s very clear, but just watching her in videos—there’s such an elegance in her upper body and then her feet are doing crazy things. [Laughs] So I don’t know: She’s just someone I admire and who has taught me so much in the short time that we’ve worked together.

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Like what?
I’ve been working with Georgina [Parkinson] and Irina [Kolpakova] for eight years now. People get comfortable when they see you every day; there are a lot of things that are missed and it was great having a fresh set of eyes as well. But it’s just a completely different way of working that I’ve never experienced. She didn’t take me aside and try to retrain me, but there were so many things about having a straight line at the hip. In the Balanchine technique, everything is so fast; there’s no time to have that break in your hip. It’s been so hard for me. But she was great and she encouraged me and would tell me that she saw improvement and that I was really soaking everything in. She has left town, so I have the next three weeks without her before I perform it. I have to remember everything she says. I wanted to film some of it, but we didn’t get a chance. But we’ll work together again.

Who is your partner in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux?
Jared Matthews. Merrill and I did a lot of private work, but I brought her in so that she could work with us together.

What did she stress the most for this role?
She told me that I’m supposed to be very elegant, like a queen, but that sometimes it can tend to get a little bit competition-like. She said that it’s not at all about that—everything is in the choreography: You don’t have to do overdo anything.

Have you thought of your approach for the ballet?
In my dancing in general, I like to keep things as clean as possible. That’s always my goal. It’s never about trying to do crazy tricks, but just trying to keep things as simple as I can. There’s so much fast footwork; I keep it basic, so it doesn’t look like it’s cluttered and messy.

What has motivated you to work with people like Susan Jaffe?
Well, they’re people that I’ve looked up to ever since I started dancing. They’re amazing artists, and I feel at this point in my career I need that. It’s not just about the technical abilities anymore; it’s time to go to the next level. And Cynthia and Susan were amazing artists.

What does it mean to go to the next level?
I worked a lot with Byam on this. He’s helped me come up with my own way of researching roles before I perform them, which is not really something I thought about before. I think it’s also because I was never really doing major roles. This is all pretty new to me. It’s just so that you’re never onstage not knowing what to do, that there’s never an empty moment where you’re waiting for the next step. So it’s about being completely prepared before you go onstage in every little moment, even if you’re just standing, having a backstory, because it will come through. It’s all still very new for me; the first role I did all of this research on was probably Gulnare when we were in London. I did a lot of thinking and I felt so comfortable and I got a lot of good feedback from Kevin and from the ballet mistresses. I hadn’t told them that I had done any of this before, so it was really nice to have them see the work that I put into it.

Tell me about Gulnare.
I was actually supposed to perform it a while back and I got injured and I’m actually really thankful that it didn’t happen then because I don’t think I was ready. I don’t think that my dancing was mature enough. I just never ever want to go onstage feeling like I’m not ready to do a part. I’d rather not do a role then be pushed out there just to say, “I’m getting this opportunity.” That’s a huge fear of mine: feeling like I’m not really capable.

Has that happened before?
Never in a major role. I mean there are always little demi-soloist parts that you don’t really have a say about [Laughs]. I danced Gulnare for the first time in the last Met season.

What was the research process like for Gulnare?
If you read the synopsis of the ballet, Gulnare is not really a character that is talked about as far as where she comes from and how she’s different from Medora. They’re so not the same character and it always tends to be like Gulnare is in her shadow. I think that Gulnare is probably a Greek woman that comes from an incredibly wealthy background: She’s someone. She can be taken as being coy or shy, but I think she’s not at all. Medora is very flirty and much softer, and I think Gulnare should be a strong woman—she’s put in a position and she’s fighting it; she’s not scared. I love the part. Also I enjoy the adagio and the variation—I love doing big grand-allegro work.

What part are you performing in Paul Taylor’s Airs?
I’m doing the pas de deux girl. It’s been a really hard process; picking up that style is so hard on the body but I really like the part. It’s hard for the guy. It’s a lot of slow presses and lifts, but I’m doing it with Isaac Stappas. He’s a muscleman so I feel very safe. [Laughs]

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Why is it so hard on the body?
Because it’s the complete opposite of what we do everyday. It’s hard when you spend one hour doing a variation in a pas de deux and you go into the next hour and you’re completely rotated in, up and down on your knees and doing squats. You’re almost developing different muscles and your body’s fighting it. It’s just not what we’re used to. I’m sure if I was in the Taylor company it would be fine on my body, but we just don’t use those big muscles on a daily basis. This is my second Taylor dance. I was also in Company B.

There are so many different categories of modern or contemporary work, but you’re excellent in them. How do you approach contemporary dances?
I think that when it comes to the more cutting-edge works, you have the freedom to bring your own artistry to them. But something like this is very specific—you don’t really have room to do whatever you want. It’s a technique and I’m sure there are so many things that here at ABT we’re not doing completely correctly. But it’s really difficult, almost more difficult than the freer contemporary things, because it’s a completely different language.

One role you performed to great success was in Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite. Was that just as affecting for you?
Yes. I think it was the first time that I really got to play a character onstage. The first time I did it was in London with Angel Corella. [Beams] Oh, he was amazing! There’s this energy that he would bring out of me. That was an amazing role to do because it’s like you’re playing so many different characters in one ballet. You get to be the aggressive woman and you get to be in love; I didn’t get to work with Twyla directly on that. I worked with Elaine Kudo, which was great, because I grew up watching her in the video when I was young.

I think that piece made people see you in another way, too—that you could act.Definitely. I think that’s the first time Kevin saw that in me. I never had the opportunity before. When I was promoted, he let me know that was the first time when he was like, “Oh, she really has that side to her,” and I think it was when he thought I was ready. But that’s definitely a role that he brought up in telling me that I was ready for this next level.

How were you promoted? Was it just contract time?
No—it was toward the end of the season, two Mets ago, and I was just hanging out waiting for the show to start. I was called into his office, which is normal; there’s always something going on and so I didn’t really think anything of it. It was very casual. I just went in and he said, “I’m going to promote you.” [Laughs] And it’s so funny because you think of all the ways it’s going to happen—if it does happen—and how you’re going to react, and I definitely didn’t react the way I thought I was going to. I think I was kind of shocked. I just said, “Oh, okay.”

Did it hit you later on?
Once I spoke to my family, it was more emotional. I always thought I would have cried, but it didn’t happen like that at all. It’s seemed like such a long journey.

What I’m impressed with is your ability to fight through what must be unimaginable bullshit and to remain very elegant—onstage and off as far as I can tell. Why is it so important?
I think that my mother is the same way. She’s been through so much in her life and she had six kids and all of us are doing so well—she has just fought and fought. On the outside, I just think of her as a strong woman and I think I’ve learned from watching her not to give up and let too much affect me.

Why is ballet so important?
I love it and that’s why I don’t want to give up. And I feel like there are so many other African-American dancers out there that have struggled and who look up to me. To just give up would be such a letdown. Even if it’s just two little girls that I’ve talked to—it means so much.

Do you have contact with many young black dancers?
There are some people that I e-mail with and write letters to if I get a letter from them. I definitely try to respond if I get anything. If someone just approaches me after a show, that keeps me going. Just hearing them say, “I saw you this one time, and you inspired me.”

What is the burden of being a role model like that?
The pressure. But if someone’s inspired by you, that’s enough.

What roles suit you best?
Contemporary roles definitely suit me really well. I think my body just takes to them. I’m still finding my way in the classics.

It would be different to really carry a ballet.
Yeah. Definitely. I trained to be a classical dancer, and that’s always been my goal, so I hope that one day I’ll get the opportunity.

What role would you want to do?
I would love to do Giselle. I would love to do Kitri [in Don Quixote]. I’m not sure about Swan Lake yet. [Laughs] I don’t know if I can see myself—who knows. A couple of years ago there were so many things I couldn’t see myself doing that I’m doing now.

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How did you meet Prince?
I received a call from a friend of mind that I grew up with in California. She works with Career Transition for Dancers and said that a friend of hers in Hollywood was looking for me. This woman called—and I believe she had worked with Prince on Billboards for the Joffrey Ballet, and that’s how they knew each other. And Prince, I guess, had been trying to get a hold of me for a couple of months and...[Disbelieving] couldn’t find me? Or something weird like that. So she told me, “He’s very interested in having you be in his video, could I give your number to him?” I said, “Yeah, you can.” [Laughs] He called me and said that he’s a huge fan of mine and he’s been following me for a while now. It’s so strange. He shot the whole thing with another girl and saw the end result. He was not happy and was like, “I want her in the video.” He flew me out to Hollywood for two days and we shot it. He’s so, so kind, and he’s just so intrigued by dancers. He said that I inspired him. [Laughs]

Has he been to the ballet?
He has. I’ve never invited him or anything like that, but he was just here and was hoping to see a show, but I’m like, “We don’t start for another couple of weeks.” He was here two or three days ago. Hopefully, I’m going to get him to come a lot more. To support ABT.

What did they have you do in the shoot?
Everything happened so fast. They got me all ready—I’m in my pointe shoes and I have this gown on and I get onto the set, and I’m like, “What am I supposed to do?” He said, “Well, you’re amazing, just improv, and we’re going to put the music on—just do whatever you want.” So I just improvised the whole time. They let the song play four or five times and I just did whatever. He was very involved; he directed the whole thing. He was sitting there on the set with me.

What were his notes?
There weren’t really any! I’ve never had so much positive reinforcement for being a dancer. The song would finish and everyone would just clap so much and I was like, [Looks around mystified] “I’m not used to this.” I went to him and said, “Is there anything that you want me to do—more jumps? Anything in particular?” And he was like, “No. Everything’s great. We’re just going to do it again.” [Laughs]

Did you ask him why he liked your dancing?

Is there going to be a song called “Misty?”
[She covers her face and laughs.] Oh, no! He wanted me to perform with him. He was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show last week, and he wanted me to do that but it didn’t work out. It would have been cool.

Do people know about it around here?
I didn’t tell anyone. I just didn’t feel the need to, and you never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get from people, so I just sort of kept it [close]. My mom knew about it, but it slowly has leaked out and when he was on Ellen’s show they played a little bit of the video. People saw it and were like, “Was that you?” It’s slowly getting around.

Are you embarrassed by it?
No, no. Not embarrassed. I just didn’t feel the need.

How old were you when you started dancing?
I was 13. I had never done any type of dance. When I was little I used to choreograph all the time. I had no experience or formal training, but I remember making my little sister learn routines that I would make up. When I was 13, I decided that I wanted to audition for the drill team, which was the dance/cheer team in my middle school, and I had never done anything before. I was so confident for some reason; I think it’s because I had no idea of what I was getting into and had never really seen dance except on MTV. I auditioned for captain. You had to choreograph your own dance and learn a dance, and I did it all and I made captain and from there, the coach—she had danced classical ballet her whole life—told me I had the physique of a ballet dancer and that I should consider taking some classes. That’s how it all started. I ended up dropping the drill team and going into ballet hard-core because my teacher said, “You have a lot of potential; if this is what you want to do, it’s going to be a lot of intense training because you missed out on so much.” I kind of dove into it and haven’t stopped since.

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When did you go on pointe?I think a month after I started. [Laughs] The thing is my whole family, naturally, have very muscular bodies. Even though we’re not all physical. But before I started, I had muscles in my legs and calves. I never had any injuries; I was always just ready. It’s funny when I look at photos of myself then: For some reason I understood how to hold myself.

When did you first see a performance?
I was maybe 14. I saw ABT in Orange County; I saw Paloma [Herrera] and Angel do Don Q, and I was blown away. I was like, “That’s what I want to do and this is the company I want to dance with.”

Virginia Johnson has just been named the new artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. What would you do if she asked you to become a principal dancer?
Oh! I would be flattered and honored, but I definitely don’t think I’m ready yet. I think that I have so many things that I want to accomplish at ABT. Maybe in the future—but there are so many things here that I feel like I need to do. I don’t think I’d be ready to let go yet.

Tell me about some of those things you need to do.
I’m not ready to leave. Classically, I have so much growing to do. I’m so excited to get to go through the process I’m going through right now. Just goals. I want to try my hardest to be a principal dancer for so many other people. I don’t want to give up and let that dream go just yet.

Were you friends with Danny Tidwell, the dancer who left ABT to pursue more contemporary work and So You Think You Can Dance?
Yes. I still am.

Was it difficult when he left?
I was so angry with him. I was so upset with him, because he has just so much talent. He can do anything and I’ve told him that so many times. It was hard because we were close and it’s always hard seeing another black person leave. It’s been a while now. When Eric Underwood left, I was really sad because we became really close. I don’t know. I’ve been alone for a while. [Laughs] Eric is doing so well at the Royal Ballet. I saw him when we were there; we spent some time together.

Yes, he’s a principal dancer now at the Royal. How do you deal with being the only black dancer in the company?
I think I’ve gone through more difficult times in the past. Also, it was because I was growing up, too. We’re all just people in the end, but I think definitely when I first came, it wasn’t even something I had considered growing up. When I got into the company, it really brought to my attention: You’re an African-American woman and there’s no one else in this company that looks like you and so not until then did I think, Oh, you’re right. I felt like there were a lot of things, culturally, that I didn’t connect with other people, and so it was always nice when Eric was here. But I think I’ve matured a lot; it would be nice to have another black person here. Not just for the sake of me—but it needs to happen.

Why hasn’t it?
I really don’t know. I feel like there’s a lot more coming into the school, which is very nice to see. We’ve got one young girl in ABT II who came from SAB; it’s really encouraging to see that. I feel like, with classical ballet, there is a certain audience and it’s all about history and there are just some people who have been coming to the ballet for years and years, and there’s this certain thing they want to see. It’s not always a black woman onstage doing the lead role. And it’s just because they’re not used to seeing it so they don’t want to see it. It’s hard to think of that. That there are people who aren’t looking at your talent.

It will change as they die off. You’ve never been tempted to do something like So You Think You Can Dance?
No. No. I mean this is what I’ve trained to do, and this is what I want to do. I’ve never been a competition dancer. I wasn’t trained that way. And it just doesn’t really interest me. I dance because it’s an art form, and I enjoy doing it—not for television and to win money. I just don’t. It’s just not for me. I could never see myself on that show.

Have you ever worked with Twyla Tharp?
Oh yeah. I’ve actually been working—the first time I worked with her was when I was in the summer program. I did one of the leads in Push Comes to Shove; we worked together in her new Rabbit and Rogue. I also worked with her this past winter on the Sinatra [project]. That was such a cool experience. There were times when I would just sit back and be like, “Wow, I am a part of a creation of hers, and she’s just so brilliant.” She’s great to work for. In the end, we did a little showcase of it and had an actual jazz band with Frank’s voice. It was so phenomenal. It was like he was there in the room. It was so cool. You just got chills. I don’t know if it’s even going to go anywhere, but it was amazing just to be part of something like that.

Why do you work on things without the possibility of performance?
Twyla is a legend and just watching her create—I think the process means so much. Being a dancer isn’t just about going out there and bashing through shows. It’s a learning process.

Do you have people you rely on for advice or coaching? Do you have a mentor?
Susan Fales-Hill. She is on the board and she’s been my sponsor for a while now; she is definitely someone I would consider a mentor and from whom I get such great advice. She’s an amazing, successful black woman, and she’s always keeping me up. It’s so great to have someone like that in my life. At first, she was sponsoring me and I didn’t really know who she was. At ABT, they try to keep that separate, but I think it got to the point where Kevin saw that she really was someone who could help me. Our relationship changed before I got promoted. She just helped keep me positive and not feeling like, Am I doing the right thing? Is my career going anywhere? She’s just great person to have around.

How has your perspective changed since you joined the company in 2001?
I feel like it’s gone in so many different directions. It’s all a part of growing up. I’ve gone through times when I was not sure if I was in the right place or if I was ever going to reach my goals. I had times of being so discouraged. And I feel I’m in such a different place now. I feel motivated. Kevin has given me so many opportunities and I’m so grateful for it. I want to put in the work. I’m in a completely different place now than I was when I first joined the company. I’ve seen the company change in the time that I’ve been here. It seems like a different place.

How so?
It was just a different generation of dancers. The corps de ballet was a lot older; I feel like I came in and I was terrified and I feel it’s not that way anymore. The corps is younger now and its more of a family, but then there are some things that are not as good. There’s not as much respect coming from a lot of the younger dancers because they don’t have that older dancer telling them what they should and shouldn’t do. I don’t know. It’s just a little different. I feel like when I joined I kept my distance. I didn’t want to get into anyone’s way; I just wanted to do my job and not tick any of the older dancers off because I was terrified of them. And now I feel like girls kind of just come in and they’ll push a principal out of the way to stand in the front. It’s just very different.

And you’re only 26!
I know! And I’m considered an old, senior member. [Laughs] When I joined there were 30-year-old corps members. It’s just so different.

ABT is at the Metropolitan Opera House Mon 18--July 11.

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