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“My ambition will never die”: How Misty Copeland changed ballet forever

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Hannah Keegan
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As Misty Copeland takes on her first film role, Stylist speaks to her about breaking down barriers

Impossible is not a word Misty Copeland entertains. For a start, the 36-year-old world-renowned ballerina didn’t set foot inside a ballet class until she was 13 (most professional dancers were taking classes as soon as they could walk). She was dancing en pointe, a skill that usually takes two years to learn, within three months. She didn’t even see a ballet production until she was 15. Yet, in 2015, Copeland became the first African-American principal dancer in the highly acclaimed American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history.

While Copeland’s late start made her training tough, her circumstances were even more so. She grew up with her five siblings in two small rooms at the Sunset Inn Motel in San Pedro, California. She was introduced to ballet when she joined the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro, a free youth group.

The dance instructor, Cindy Bradley, remembered her as a “skinny, skinny, brown girl” with skill well beyond her experience. Bradley embarked upon four years of intense catch-up training with Copeland. Her family called her “brainwashed” and wanted her to quit. When the commute to classes became too much, she moved in with Bradley, resulting in a painful legal battle as Copeland sought emancipation from her mother, who wanted her to come home. She says it has taken “years to talk about it without crying”.

Misty dancing in an American Ballet Theater performance of ‘Don Quixote’ 

Since then, things have gone from zero to 100 for Copeland. She’s featured in Drake’s Nice For What music video; become a global ambassador for Estée Lauder’s Modern Muse fragrance; her ad campaign for Under Armour has more than eight million views on YouTube and she has 1.6 million Instagram followers. Now, she is starring as the Ballerina in Disney’s lavish new adaptation of The Nutcracker alongside Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley.

For Copeland, who is one of the few dancers in history to make the jump to Hollywood-level fame, it is important to be at the forefront of pop culture. There are still only a handful of black ballerinas in the world’s top institutions; big brands such as Bloch only started producing darker toned ballet shoes two years ago. Copeland understands what her visibility means to young, non-white dancers. The sheer volume of fan mail she receives is testament enough.

When we speak, Copeland is in a rare quiet period before gearing up for a new season at the American Ballet Theatre. I get the sense that she is only just getting a chance to digest the past year. How does she keep it all in perspective? The space she occupies within ballet and the wider world, she tells me, is greater than herself.

Misty is starring as the Ballerina in Disney’s lavish new adaptation of The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is your first movie. What was it like to work alongside Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley?

It was very surreal. I never, ever imagined I would be in a position like this. But at the same time, I felt comfortable because I was showcasing my talent, what I do every day, in the realm of acting.

You have described yourself as a cripplingly shy child. Do you still deal with that?

In my everyday life, I tend to be more reserved – I save my energy to express myself when I am performing. It’s funny that on stage I can be so exposed in front of thousands, but it still feels like a safe space to me. No one can interrupt me or have an opinion. Ballet empowered me to be myself, to speak out and fight.

Are you naturally introverted?

Yes, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. Growing up, I was the youngest in the family and it meant I never had to stand up for myself or have a voice, there were all these people for me to hide behind. Ballet forced me to step outside of that and become an individual. I have come a long way. When I think back to one of my first interviews – I must have been 14 years old and the LA Times called me. I said “yes” or “no” to every question and then I just hung up the phone.

You have broken so many barriers on your way to the top. How do you stay motivated?

I don’t believe in the top. It’s an incredible honour to even hold the title of principal dancer. My ambition will never die, because as long as you’re a professional dancer you have to be so focused and give all of yourself, all of the time. I feel like I have a responsibility, too. It’s my responsibility to represent women, people of colour and people who feel like they don’t have the perfect body type for ballet. That’s what keeps me going, knowing I will never be perfect. I will never reach the place where I’m like, ‘OK, I did all of that, and now I’m done.’

Do you think your presence on the big screen will have the power to change what people perceive a ballerina to be?

Absolutely. It’s so encouraging and empowering for younger generations to be able to see a brown ballerina on screen. It means they’re going to grow up knowing it is possible for them.

Did you see people on screen that looked like you growing up?

I grew up in a household where my mother and father were biracial and my stepfather was black. The people I saw myself through were soul and R&B artists. I became obsessed with Mariah Carey because I was subconsciously seeing someone who looked like me who was succeeding. It wasn’t until I joined the American Ballet Theatre that I really understood the power of representation because, suddenly, I was in a world where I didn’t have it. It’s a scary feeling.

Presenting an award during the Black Girls Rock! 2018 Show

Was there a moment when you realised you were in the minority?

Yeah! I had [danced as part of a group] in the corps de ballet at the American Ballet Theatre for maybe two years when donors were invited in to see us rehearse. A man pulled me aside and said, “This is a really huge deal that you are a black woman and you are in ABT.”

At the time, I was just trying to dance and survive – his comment really caught me off guard. It was like, oh my god, I have never, ever thought of myself that way. I saw myself as the same as any other dancer. It was an eye-opening moment and it changed the course of my career. I reassessed my purpose.

Do you feel like you’ve had to sacrifice anything to get to this level?

Yes, but I think any successful person would say that. I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m 21 years old and I’ve never had a boyfriend.’ My career is more important to me. It was just my life. I’m often asked by younger students, “How did you balance your personal life and dance training?” and my answer is, I didn’t. You have to sacrifice. You’ll make incredible friends within your career instead. It’s just what you have to do if you want to be a part of this incredibly moving and beautiful art form.

What was it like spending your teenage years being so disciplined?

It was really easy for me. It’s hard for a lot of young people, they want to fit in, they want to go to parties. I wasn’t in that position. I didn’t have a lot of friends because I was so shy. We didn’t have a lot of money and I was living in a motel when I took my first ballet class – those things didn’t allow me to get close to people. When ballet came along I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve never been a part of anything.’ So, it was very easy for me to sacrifice things I did not have for the structure I wanted.

Is there any advice you would give your younger self?

I would tell her to not be so stressed and worried, but that’s a hard thing to tell a Virgo! I’d say everything is going to work itself out in the end, you’re not in total control and that’s OK. I was such a ball of stress, I wish I could’ve had less migraines and enjoyed the process.

At the premiere of The Nutcracker And The Four Realms

What do you like to do with your time off?

Eat! I’ve lived in New York for almost 20 years and my favourite spot in the Upper West Side is Café Luxembourg. I love Soho House in the Meatpacking District, too. Places where you feel like you’re getting authentic pieces of culture.

When you were promoted to principal dancer, you said it felt like the beginning of the end. What’s next?

It’s an interesting feeling, because I don’t know if I ever truly believed I’d be a principal. So when it happened I had a realisation of it being the last chapter. It’s a weird space to be in. I’m getting older and in the ballet world once you reach principal, there’s nothing beyond that. But I’m just going to let things happen organically. I want to enjoy this time because I’ll never get it back. When the time comes for me to leave, I know I’ll have so many things that will fulfill me. I’ve worked for it.

The Nutcracker And The Four Realms is in cinemas from 2 November

Images: Rex Features, Getty

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