‘Ballet was definitely my escape,” says Misty Copeland. “It was the first thing I’d ever experienced in my life that was mine – only mine, not my five other siblings’. It gave me a voice, made me feel powerful.”
When Copeland discovered ballet she was 13, living with her mother and siblings in a motel in California. She was a shy, slight child who rarely spoke and tried not to be noticed. Twenty-three years later, hers is the kind of transformation story even ballet might think far-fetched. In 2015, she became the first black female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre – and with that a spokesperson, poster girl, and bona fide star. Barack Obama sought her out as an adviser, Prince invited her on tour, Spike Lee wants her in his films, and people queue up to meet her at the stage door of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
And now the latest chapter in her real-life fairytale has begun to unfold. Copeland is dancing in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a cinema revamp of the Christmas favourite starring Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman.
Like all ballet dancers, Copeland is petite and perfectly put together, beaming with unerring positivity and a ready giggle as she sits in this London hotel room with a camel mac draped over her knees to keep warm.
This is a woman who’s had a tough life but seems to have come out of it with no hard edges. In ballet, where many things on stage look much as they did a century ago, there are few women of colour in major companies, and Copeland remembers the moment when she knew she had to take on the mantle of role model. She was watching a documentary about the Ballets Russes that featured pioneering black ballerina Raven Wilkinson. “I had this awakening,” she says. “I didn’t even know she existed. I saw her and it was this unexpected reaction. I was crying. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have this bigger purpose that I never even realised.’”
Copeland has actively sought out opportunities to bring ballet to new audiences and to change its image, from speaking engagements to endorsements and book deals. When millions of viewers see her in an Under Armour commercial, she says, “they will see a brown ballerina and think, ‘Oh, that’s what a ballerina looks like.’ When you can imagine yourself on the stage, especially as a young person, it allows you to dream of doing anything.”
When she was a child, Copeland had no dreams of ballet. The family moved a lot as her mother married and divorced several times, there was little money and Copeland kept her head down. But, in fact, she was always a ballerina – she just didn’t know it. She loved grossing out her brothers with what her hyper flexible joints could do, but she had no idea she might have the perfect physique for a particular type of dance. She hated her skinny, long legs, big hands and “pinhead”.
Luckily, one of her teachers noticed. Copeland took her first ballet class on a basketball court at the local Boys and Girls Club, but it wasn’t until she stepped inside a studio, donned tights and leotard and looked at herself in the mirror that this homeless teen realised she had finally found home.
Copeland was 13, a very late age to start dancing for a professional, but she progressed fast with teacher Cindy Bradley. When her mother could no longer take her across town to classes, Copeland moved in with Bradley (which led to a difficult, highly publicised custody battle, a low point in Copeland’s life). At 18, she joined American Ballet Theatre’s studio company, then its corps de ballet. But a serious stress fracture, followed by sudden weight gain after the delayed onset of puberty, led to her confidence crashing.
Copeland credits her survival to a series of mentors, mainly successful black women outside dance, and to ABT’s director, Kevin McKenzie. “He was sensitive enough to see that I was a young girl on my own, had never really had a stable home. He did what he could to help me grow when other people within the artistic staff didn’t want to see me get those opportunities.” Because you hadn’t paid your dues? “No, because of my skin colour. Because of my body. I know those things for a fact.”
As well as the overt racism, there were subtle signals that this wasn’t her world.Until recently, pointe shoes only came in a “nude” colour that was pale pink. “What does it mean that we’re wearing pink tights?” she asks. “It’s because that’s the colour you’re expected to be.” Ballet shoe maker Freed has just launched the UK’s first pointe shoes for darker skin tones (Gaynor Minden does a similar range in the US), although Copeland still colours hers with pancake makeup. “It’s the little things that make you feel like you don’t belong.”
Things are changing, slowly. When Copeland arrived at ABT, which is based in New York, she was the only black woman there. Now there are three. Audiences are changing too. “Especially in the States – that’s something I’ve seen open up so much in the past five years. To see, outside the Met, a line stretching from the door to the street of brown young people.”
But it’s not just about who’s on stage, it’s what they’re doing up there. “We’re getting them in the door,” says Copeland. “But now we have to keep them there. So I think we’re going to have to evolve again with the stories we’re telling, so people can connect with them.”
How much responsibility does an art form have to reflect the world and send positive messages about race or gender? “I think it’s extremely important,” says Copeland. “Especially with ballet, if we don’t open ourselves up and evolve with the times, we’re not going to be relevant and people aren’t going to be interested in coming. I understand becoming a character, and that not every time you step on stage has to be some amazing political statement, but I also think we have so much room in classical dance to grow.”
In the film, Copeland plays a ballerina in the land of toys come to life, dancing a ballet that tells the story of the Four Realms – as the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) and our heroine Clara (Mackenzie Foy) look on. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has taken the well-worn favourite, with its notoriously weak plot, and given it some Hollywood drama-doctoring. It’s something film does all the time – could ballet not do the same? “Right!” says Copeland. “Absolutely!” The film, she says, gives more depth to a story “that can seem very light and cheesy”.
It also has a feminist slant. In the original tale, Herr Drosselmeyer is the maker of magical toys, but in the film Clara’s mother is a more talented inventor. What’s more, Clara, something of a bystander in many Nutcracker ballets, is here heir to the Four Realms her mother created, and “a new kind of princess”.
If a company like Disney, synonymous with the pretty princess myth, can drag itself into the 21st century on matters of gender and race, can’t ballet follow suit? “It’s scary for us to make change,” says Copeland. “It’s like, ‘Don’t fix what isn’t broken.’ But in my opinion, it is broken. The times are changing and we have to catch up. I think the more we bring in newer people with fresh ideas behind the scenes – artistic directors, choreographers – those things will change.”
There are plenty of people in ballet who are doing exactly this (Tamara Rojo at English National Ballet comes to mind, having commissioned Akram Khan to reimagine Giselle). But elsewhere, tradition reigns supreme and a 19th-century worldview permeates many classic ballets. Copeland mentions the exotic eastern fantasies La Bayadère and pirate tale Le Corsaire. “You think of Corsaire as this light thing, but it’s not really. It’s slaves, these women chained up. I think we could have stories that really reflect different cultures in a fresh way, you know? Ballet is worldly, so let’s represent what we all are.”
To this end, Copeland has set up a production company that has lots of ideas in the works. She has also been swapping ideas with Spike Lee, who keeps pushing her to act in his films. “I’m like, ‘No, I want you to help me create something.’”
Nonetheless, she’s enjoying her on-camera moment in The Nutcracker, a role that cements what feels like a sudden rise to stardom but has actually been long in the making. Despite her innate talents, Copeland has always been playing catch-up for her late start. She wasn’t promoted to principal dancer until the age of 33 (“very late”). But in the last few years, everything has come together. She has even married her long-term boyfriend, lawyer Olu Evans.
“I was such a late bloomer,” she says, “in terms of my emotional growth and the environments I grew up in. I feel like I progressed as a woman so late – but then when I did, it was all at once.” And now, it seems, there’s no stopping her.