Misty Copeland: The Ballet Star and Her Marketing Juggernaut Are Everywhere

The latest addition to the Misty Copeland juggernaut was last week’s announcement that she will be co-producing with FOX a ballet-themed series modeled to some extent on her quest to become a principal dancer at ABT. The new documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale which focuses on recent events in the dancer’s life is currently in release in theaters across the country. It follows her Broadway debut in August with performances in On the Town. October found her featured on mainstream TV along with Yo-Yo Ma in a segment on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show and another on Jimmy Kimmel Live.  The latest Dance Magazine issue has an article on her titled The Misty Copeland Effect. With her many books, Under Armour ads, and an advisory position with Project Plié at ABT she is, it seems, everywhere.

In the midst of the continual reporting it has been disconcerting to see how little longstanding companies known for diversity such as Ballet Hispanico or Lines Ballet, and especially Dance Theater of Harlem have figured into the momentum  of Copeland’s saga. In DTH we have a relevant history, an entire company of black dancers with principals (both male and female) that has endured for nearly 50 years as top tier American ballet, but they are barely a blip in the information frenzy of the Copeland. Copeland of course knows this history and has openly acknowledged her debt to an earlier generation of black ballet stars, dancers such as Raven Wilkinson,Virginia Johnson, and Lauren Anderson. But her story continues to be put forward as a solo achievement, one that mostly steers clear of casting the big time ballet world as purveyors of discrimination by ignoring diversity in the their ranks. The Dance Magazine article is thin on what Copeland’s success might mean for young dancers but it points to a few modest changes that some regional companies are beginning to make. At least here, there is an early quantifiable dividend.

Looking  toward Cuba, where the National Ballet of Cuba has carried on with its traditional embrace of classical dance and filled its ranks with black and mixed race dancers during much of the last 40 years, we find another willingly forgotten example of a whole world embracing ballet with blacks at it’s center. Yet even here there is a kind of collective amnesia in acknowledging the big picture while elevating Copeland’s story. People like her have succeeded elsewhere, just never at ABT or at the handful of flagship companies like it. Perhaps there is simply an eagerness to cast it as a one-off, outsider’s drama, a heroic tale of a talented and fiercely determined once-homeless black kid from a complicated family whacking away at the thick walls of America’s white, ballet establishment. It’s the American dream cast as a ballet adventure, not a Cinderella story exactly, but something like it.

Of course none of this history touches on the longstanding achievements of black dancers and choreographers in other American dance worlds. For whatever reason, that more open universe, especially modern dance, has been walled off from ballet, any kind of ballet, since well before Copeland. But she fits into another amnesia-driven American narrative. It’s a narrative that operates in tandem with the Obama Presidency that has painfully had to acknowledge an ugly resurgent racism as if it were some new thing, a world that has rolled back the securities of Voting Rights Act as if it were archaic policy, a world newly inflamed over indiscriminate police killings of young black men. It’s a universe suspiciously like the 1960’s, a world we thought we had already beaten back. But it’s on our doorstep once again, and now, unlikely as it seems, American ballet is also part of  the story.

ABT suffered an amnesia-driven moment of its own this summer when Marcelo Gomes appeared on stage spray painted bronze for the title role in the Lar Lubovitch Othello. There was a well-publicized eruption over the casting and makeup decision which centered on a letter to ABT and the Met Opera written by a New York actor pushing them for a reasonable explanation for engaging in a throwback racist theatrical practice. The story was carried by Huffington Post and Broadway Black. ABT promised to respond and never did though the Met issued a statement soon after that said they were abandoning the hundred-year-old tradition of blacking singers for roles such as Otello. The exposed narratives concerning Copeland’s promotion, the intentions behind Project Plié to promote diversity, and the tone deafness on the Othello story left ABT looking rudderless on ballet and race issues. Even now it looks more like they are being led rather than leading.

The “Misty Copeland effect” may prove to be more publishing fodder than anything else. It’s not the main issue here and we may still want to tie more to the story than it can support, but there is no doubt that ballet in America needs to amend its course and embrace more diversity in training programs and hiring practices. Carlos Acosta, the black Cuban-trained Royal Ballet star outlined some important thoughts on ballet and diversity in a recent article. He estimated that barely half of the students who might actually want to study dance are reached by current schools and training programs for young dancers. Among the missing no doubt are the most racially and socially diverse among those interested, students who are priced out or simply unaware that dance might be an option for them. These are precisely the students that Project Plié is hoping to reach. Once they start to fill the advanced ranks of top schools perhaps stories such as Copeland’s will become more the norm than the exception. But for now, her uniqueness and nationally recognized brand is keeping the heat on ballet institutions like ABT to change, and change fast.

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