She may have "only" discovered ballet at 13 (most principal ballerinas begin their training between the ages of six and eight) but the trailblazing American dancer Misty Copeland is currently pirouetting at the very top of her game.
Hers is a career that has become the stuff of legend: she grew up with her mother and siblings in California motel, took her first ballet class on a basketball court at the local Boys & Girls Club and won a prestigious scholarship award for her talent just two short years later. At 18, she joined the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) as a member of its corps de ballet, and in 2015 she was promoted to principal, becoming the company's first Black principal female dancer in its entire 75-year history. That year, she was also named one of the world's 100 most influential people by Time.
Along the way there have been books (including a bestselling memoir, Life in Motion), appearances in music videos, advisory roles to Barack Obama and even a starry turn as a ballerina princess in Disney's 2018 film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a character created especially for her.
This week, Copeland was announced as the newest face of Breitling's Chronomat watches for women, joining actors Charlize Theron and Yao Chen as a member of the brand's 'Spotlight Squad' of inspiring spokespeople. Ahead of the announcement, we chatted via Zoom to discuss how she's been spending her time in lockdown, how she stays motivated, the future of ballet and why it's important to keep shining a light for others.
How have you found being in lockdown?
Every day is a new adjustment. I don’t think, as humans, we give ourselves enough credit for how much we can take on. Aside from a couple of trips to see family in Los Angeles and Oakland, I’ve mostly been in Manhattan, where I live with my husband [lawyer Olu Evans].
With theatres unfortunately being forced to close, what’s been keeping you occupied and motivated?
Since the theatres have closed, a lot of my work hasn’t directly been focused on ABT, but I did organise Swans for Relief in lockdown with Joseph Phillips, a former colleague of mine who now dances in the Philippines, to raise funds for ballet dancers all over the world who are struggling financially to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table. We gathered 32 ballerinas from 14 different countries [connected virtually, they performed Tchaikovsky’s main theme from Swan Lake] and it was amazing to see how many people understood the benefits of having the arts in our lives and supported us. Dance and music are so healing - you only need to look at TikTok to see how crucial they are for keeping people happy and motivated at the moment. They’re an important part of our culture.
How do you keep your spirits up?
I stay creative in any way I can. Of course, it’s fine to relax, too. Last weekend I slept a lot and made a couple of pumpkin pies. But even if you do one little creative thing a day for yourself, even just writing down a few thoughts, it helps to keep you positive and hopeful.
Given the current climate, have you been able to maintain your training regime?
It’s been a tricky time for all dancers. We have to train like professional athletes but a lot of us don’t have the facilities at home, so it’s about trying to find a way to put in the work however we can. About a month before lockdown, I was supposed to be performing in Washington, but I ended up injuring my back so those first few months were spent in recovery. It comes with the territory. I’ve been doing a lot of physical therapy via Zoom. I’m definitely not in the shape that I would be in if I were doing Swan Lake, but it’s actually allowed me to concentrate on other projects that have been in the works for a while. You’ve got to make the best out of the circumstances that the world is in.
What sort of projects have you been working on?
My children’s book, Bunheads, actually came out a few weeks ago, which is exciting because positivity is so needed, especially for children right now. To be able to film the new campaign with Breitling in the midst of everything was unbelievable, too. It was the first shoot I’ve ever done remotely, with me in a studio in New York and the directors in London. It was wonderful that the brand respected and understood my aesthetic as a ballerina, to know what looked correct. They allowed me to improvise on the set, which I really enjoyed doing. For me, the brand represents timeless elegance mixed with grit and dedication – all adjectives that could equally be applied to the career of a dancer.
You’ve said in the past that ballet gave you a voice and made you feel powerful. Is it important for you to bring that voice to brand partnerships like this one?
Definitely. It’s important for me to work with people that are passionate as I am and who understand my mission. To be able to join Yao and Charlize on the Breitling Spotlight Squad, two incredibly strong women with equally powerful voices, is amazing. Representation is everything. The ballet world is traditionally very white, so my very presence as a ballerina gives people hope that they can be in a space that has often excluded them and their community.
What's been a career highlight for you?
I would say my favourite role to dance is Juliet, in Romeo & Juliet. I once performed as a guest artist in La Scala in Milan and I danced opposite Roberto Bolle, who is an incredible partner and the ultimate Romeo. To be there in Italy, in that theatre, was just a magical moment and something that I, as a Black girl from San Pedro, California, could never have imagined when I was growing up.
What lessons do you hope we all take out of this very strange year?
I hope that we see the humanity in one another. That we’re all going through this monumental thing together, as well as all the things we’re dealing with in our daily lives. This is a moment that should bring us together, and we should trust that we’re stronger than maybe we’re told we are.
What does the future hold for you?
I’ve always liked a challenge and trying to make things work in a different structure or in different circumstances. We’re going to have to keep advancing how we bring the arts to people and adjust performances in a way that we can control and keep safe.
I’ve got other projects on the go, too, that I’m really proud of. I have a production company, called Life in Motion which I co-founded with a girlfriend of mine. We want to tell stories of Black artists that have not been told and be a lens for them. I’m also working on more books, including one called Black Ballerinas, on the histories of Black dancers that haven’t previously been documented.
Having this time away from performing has allowed me to see a bigger picture in terms of my mission to help the ballet world to grow. I have been speaking about race and racism in the industry, and about how it needs to reinvent itself, for my entire 20-year career. People need to feel included, especially in something as universal as dance. I want to continue using my voice and my platform to bring that to as many people as possible.
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