The following interview is with Misty Copeland, beautiful Soloist with American Ballet Theatre. The interview is written by my daughter Nendie for the youth magazine that she edits called The Cut (www.thisisthecut.com) and is aimed at teenage readers but has many fascinating details for older dance fans too including details about Misty’s shoes and daily routine and her recent performances with Prince.
Misty Copeland is the 28 year old dancer being celebrated as a true ballet “prodigy”. Last year, recording artist Prince sought her out as a collaborator, and Misty danced alongside him as he performed at Madison Square Garden. Born in Kansas City and standing at a slight 5’2 tall, Misty is the first black ballerina to be made a Soloist with the world-famous American Ballet Theatre (called ABT for short). Performing in Paul Taylor’s Company B- a piece set to the music of the Andrew’s Sisters and other popular dance numbers from the 1940s, the dancers had pin-curled hair and the guys were be-speckled geeks and preppy heart-throbs.
Misty astonished the audience at Sadler’s Wells Theatre with her solo: virtuoso technique and outrageous musicality, the applause was so loud the roof nearly flew off the theatre. But the ability to perform like this does not come easily, working her way through at least four pairs of pointe shoes a week and rehearsing up to twelve hours a day in the busy performance season.
The Cut wanted to find out what life is like for an artist who devotes herself to dance. “When I first discovered ballet. I watched a lot of ABT videos. I remember studying Gelsey Kirkland and Misha’s Don Quixote at Wolf trap […] If I could be transported back in time I would want to dance in the late 70’s early 80’s with ABT. It was such an exciting time for dance. Misha and Gelsey were household names. People in pop culture were excited about ballet! Gelsey was on the cover of Time Magazine! I still have hopes of dancing with Desmond Richardson! Then the first live ballet production I ever saw was ABT’s Don Quixote with Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella. Paloma and Gelsey instantly became my idols…”. Even though Misty came to ballet relatively late at the age of 13, her “mother had dance training from a young age. She cheered professionally for the NFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs [and Misty’s] youngest brother was a prodigy on the piano.”
The American Ballet Theatre is one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world and is based in New York City. Thousands compete to enter the company, but only a very few individuals are accepted into the training stages each year. Many of the Principal dancers come from Russia, other parts of Europe and increasingly, English candidates try out for the company too. Ballet at this level requires dancers to be born with a perfect dance body; highly flexible backs, a lot of extension in their limbs and well turned out hips, as well as beautifully arched feet and beautiful “line” (the way the dancer holds each body part relative to their centre of gravity when moving).
One of the hardest things about dance is that it is an expression of the music through your whole body rather than just showing emotion with facial expressions. Scientists have long said that ballet puts more physical strain on the body and is more demanding than any other “sport” or exercise.
Misty says, “A typical day begins with a 10:15 am ballet class to warm us up for the rehearsal day. We work up to 7pm Tuesday through Saturday. This is during our rehearsal season, when we are not performing but preparing to. During our performance season, we are in the theatre from about 11am to 11pm, rehearsing and performing[…]Pointe shoes don’t seem very supportive but they are and I would not dance on my toes without them and wouldn’t recommend it, even at my level with my strength. We do build muscles in our whole body to support standing on our toes. The elastics and ribbons that we attach to our shoes add support as well, to our ankles. […]I wear Bloch Axiom pointe shoes. They are specially made for me. I have them hard in the sole because my feet are very flexible and the shoes tend to break fast there. I also put jet glue in the toe to keep them hard and add support around my metatarsal. Jet glue is similar to super glue. I go through about 4 shoes per week while we are in rehearsal season but up to 10 a week during performance season.”
In London, Misty also performed in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, an extremely technically demanding piece which requires dancers to balance on a single pointe whilst in arabesques and supporting the weight of other dancers. Balanchine’s style is so specific, formal and elegant that specialists come in to work with the dancers, “Balanchine’s style can be very difficult if you weren’t trained that way. It took me a couple of years of being in the company to adapt to the fast footwork…Every ballet we perform is set by an expert that may be the choreographer or someone who has danced the work and was granted permission to set the ballet. We are then coached on that particular piece for weeks. I love the challenge of performing two completely different genres of movement.”
Part of being a dancer at this level is the constant challenge of understanding the style and projecting the vision of the choreographer. When Misty performed with Prince at Madison Square Garden, she was on pointe on top of a grande piano, technically a huge challenge in a different way from the Balanchine, “The stage as well as the piano were very slippery at Madison Square Garden. I had rubber soles put on the bottom of my pointe shoes to keep from sliding. It still was slippery though”. So does dance require a certain fearlessness? “Yes, dance does take being fearless. Fearless in every way. You’re not only risking injury, falling, forgetting steps, but putting yourself and personal expression out there for the world to judge. I think it takes a certain type of person to do that.”
When I ask Misty if Prince is a fan of ballet she says, “Prince is a fan of art and artists. It’s fun to teach people about ballet and get them interested. It’s cool to find such similarities in music and dance and how they really are one in the same and inspire each other.” Ballet is an art form where the dancer is constantly pushing themselves and with class and rehearsal all day every day, dance literally becomes a different way of life. “I’m sure dance does influence the way I see the world. I don’t know of any other way of seeing the world because this is who I am and have always been. I think it makes me appreciate music, art, love, food. I think all of my senses are more alive because of dance.”
Without doubt Misty is destined to be one of those greatest of ballerinas- or a ballerina assoluta as they are sometimes called. I wonder how she will make that jump psychologically to that highest of levels only attained by a few like Margot Fonteyn or Sylvie Guillem.
Misty reflects, “I don’t think that in order to become a Principal Dancer it means that I need to improve or change my technique. It’s a bit deeper than that. I wouldn’t be in ABT let alone a Soloist with them if I didn’t have the ability. At this point I think it’s going to take experience. Just getting thrown out there in a big leading role in order to learn and be tested and see if I have what it takes[…] My dream role changes all of the time. Hahaha! I think in terms of being a black woman it would be incredible to dance the role of Odette/Odile [the black and white swan] in Swan Lake. On a personal artistic level, I have a list of dream roles: Juliette, Giselle, Nikiya or Gamzatti in La Bayadere’.
For more information on Misty Copeland check out her website at Mistycopeland.com