Misty Copeland is having a Beyoncé kind of moment. But does the media attention she has whipped up have anything to do with her art?
Even without American Ballet Theatre’s recent promotion of Copeland to its top rank, making her the first black principal ballerina in that company’s 75-year history, the Kansas City-born dancer has made an extraordinary breakthrough into popular culture. With her Under Armour ads, her best-selling memoir and, in April, her Time magazine cover, she has traveled far beyond the world of ballet.
Copeland, 32, inhabits a realm open to a very few celebrities — Beyoncé is one — who transcend their field and become household names.
No ballet dancer has done that for more than 40 years. The last one was Mikhail Baryshnikov, who electrified the public imagination by defecting from the Soviet Union in 1974 and landing in New York. Less than a year later, he was on the cover of Time. Television appearances followed, along with movie-star posters of the ballet star in a barely there fishnet shirt. He also had film roles, a fragrance and bodywear line and a mania of lustful adoration wherever he went.
But little of the mass-media attention paid to Baryshnikov had to do with his ballet technique, though by the time he defected, it was perfect beyond compare and only grew in magnificence. As with Copeland — and Isadora Duncan, and even Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev — what captured the greater public interest beyond the dance world were other parts of the story.
In that May 1975 Time cover article, Baryshnikov was depicted not only as a Casanova but also as a busy one: “He has conducted affairs with several women — among them dancers he has worked with — since arriving in the West last summer.” That was in the second paragraph. The article goes on to mention his skinny-dipping and preference for “clothes — and chicks — from the West.”
A heterosexual male ballet dancer — this was news, in the eyes of many.
It also was the typical formula for an artist-turned-celebrity: a personal story and a personality — real or manufactured — that captures the times and the American public.
Baryshnikov “came in with such backstory drama,” says Douglas Sonntag, director of dance at the National Endowment for the Arts. His defection, Sonntag says, “had the spies and Cold War thing going on … but he was also sexy as hell. So suddenly, we had someone who could dance but also set hearts aflutter.”
“Personalities are crucial to the success of any medium,” says Amy Henderson, the National Portrait Gallery’s historian emerita, who specializes in media-generated celebrity culture. Duncan, the modern dance pioneer who became a global star, “evoked the ‘new woman,’” Henderson says. “That was her statement, and she captured the moment” at the dawn of the 20th century.
“It has almost nothing to do with talent,” Henderson adds. “There’s something explosive about these personalities, that they go beyond our mundane, everyday lives.”
Copeland’s story of perseverance has a bright, shining quality similar to that of Baryshnikov’s tale of escape. Not only did she rise to the top of her art form — and it’s not easy for anyone to go that far in ballet — but she also came from a tough, impoverished background (her mother moved the family to Los Angeles when Copeland was 2), started her training late, at age 13, and broke through a color barrier.
New York City Ballet has had two African-American principal dancers, both men, with the first, Arthur Mitchell, debuting in 1955. Both Mitchell and Albert Evans, the second, enjoyed long-term, well-rounded careers. ABT enlisted African-American dancer Desmond Richardson as a principal in 1997, but in his brief stay there (he left in 1998, returning as a guest in 2007), his starring roles were largely limited to the title figure in “Othello.”
The timing of Copeland’s promotion, on June 30, added to the news value. It was especially powerful in light of the Charleston, S.C., massacre of nine African-Americans less than two weeks before and the police-involved deaths of African-Americans in Ferguson and Baltimore.
Add to this the Supreme Court’s decision establishing a right to same-sex marriage and South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, and Copeland’s integration of ABT’s top rank fits into a network of toppling conventions.
But she was a media phenomenon even without her promotion. By early spring, she was seen as the kind of breakout star that Time wanted on its cover as one of the 100 Most Influential People, says Radhika Jones, the magazine’s deputy managing editor.
“We’re looking for people who aren’t just great at the particular thing that they do but who have the ability to cross over into other fields,” says Jones, who oversees the Time 100 issue. “Misty Copeland makes you look twice and think twice about what contemporary ballet could be. And this is what the cover of Time magazine is for, to show people who are breaking boundaries and inspiring young women and men.”
She likens Copeland’s campaign for ballet diversity to advances made by women in science and technology and in male-dominated sports. As an example, Jones mentions Serena Williams pushing for pay equity across genders in tennis.
“It’s not enough to get up and do what you do,” Jones says. “You have to talk about it and make people aware that what you’re doing is not easy or customary.”
This is absolutely Copeland’s forte. She has spoken and written movingly about her struggles and self-discipline. But what about her artistry, how well she dances? This facet of her story is rarely mentioned.
“The media blitz isn’t about ballet; it’s about other things,” says Lynn Garafola, a dance history professor at Barnard College. She notes that when Nureyev and Fonteyn, of London’s Royal Ballet, famously got busted at a 1967 pot party in San Francisco, it was front-page news. Who cared what depth they had brought to their dancing earlier that night? The spotlight was on the fur-cloaked stars being trundled off in a patrol wagon (and on their sudden aura of outlaw cool).
“It has a lot more to do with how the media is treating very talented people,” Garafola adds. “Nureyev and Baryshnikov got an amount of media coverage that no other ballet dancer could’ve dreamed of simply because they had defected at the height of the Cold War from the other side.”
Like them, Copeland is a special magnet for that Holy Grail of any classical art form: young people.
Copeland has made a point of connecting with her young fans, says her manager, Gilda Squires. Squires started working with Copeland in 2011, a few years after the dancer rose to ABT’s middle rank of soloist, and she negotiated Copeland’s Under Armour and Diet Dr Pepper deals. “As much as her ballet career is very busy, and that’s her No. 1 priority, it’s important for her to interact with her fans and have one-on-one experiences,” Squires says. “What people are drawn to is, she seems like them. It’s not like she’s way above them; she’s right there with them.”
But where Copeland differs from other dancers with celebrity status is that they were known as artists of the highest order first. Only after that did they break through to become big names in pop culture, by virtue of their personal stories and circumstances. And so the side trips into film roles and books and endorsements did not impair their development as great dancers. Copeland is doing it a bit backward.
As a new principal, and a late starter, she is still a work in progress, though she has gone further than any ballerina in building up her celebrity, and in pursuing wide-ranging activities beyond ballet. Just this month, she announced that she’ll star in the Broadway musical “On the Town” for two weeks, starting Aug. 25. She’ll have to study acting and singing for the role, both new for her. Managing the enormous media attention, and driving it, as well as turning to novel professional endeavors, puts her in unfamiliar territory for a contemporary ballet dancer still developing her technique and style.
There is truly nothing conventional about Copeland. She was not going to quietly toil away in the studio in the hopes of gaining notice. And she seems to have no plans to do so now. That worries at least one observer.
“I don’t think one can completely separate the media around Copeland from the fact that she has generated it herself, in the sense that there is a PR firm,” says Garafola, noting Copeland’s ads, her memoir and “any number of things that were part of this media campaign for her to be promoted to a principal dancer. Now she’s achieved it, and has turned around and gone to Broadway. I am disappointed.”
Garafola says that given Copeland’s age, she doesn’t have many years left at the height of her physical powers. “She has an extraordinary opportunity to do something to seal her claim to high-ballerina status, through all the major roles, and to work further on her ‘Swan Lake.’ It’s a role that challenges ballerinas over a lifetime, and I think it’s more significant than doing a Broadway show.”
In making history at ABT, Copeland has become a pop-culture icon. But why should her story stop here? She could become not only a culturally important ballerina but also a great ballerina. If she chooses the road to artistic prominence, accumulating experience through guest appearances with the premier European companies, deepening her work on the major ballets, developing a personal style and attracting the leading choreographers to create roles for her, she will have to make choices about how she spends her time.
Copeland has upended the equation. She has been a celebrity for several years, but she is not yet a finished artist. The questions now are: Can she be both? And if not, which will she give up?