Misty Copeland, a popular soloist with American Ballet Theatre who has become a leader in diversity for ballet, will make her American debut in “Swan Lake” with the Washington Ballet in April, the company announced Wednesday.
Copeland, who is African American, will dance the leading role of Odette/Odile at the Kennedy Center, with the Washington Ballet’s Brooklyn Mack as her partner and love interest, Prince Siegfried. Mack is also African American, and the two will effectively shatter the all-white stereotype of “Swan Lake,” the most traditional of ballets.
“I’ve been a fan of Misty’s for years,” Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre said in an interview Wednesday. “There’s a freshness and newness that she brings to what she’s doing, and with the attention that she’s receiving now, it’s an exciting moment. To give her the opportunity to dance her first ‘Swan Lake’ in the U.S. this spring, and to pair her with Brooklyn Mack, questions some notions about who should be dancing principal roles in classical ballet.
“Having two African Americans dancing together seems to provide a fresh take on this classic,” Webre continued, “while challenging traditional notions of what a ballerina and principal male dancer should look like in the classical canon.”
Copeland’s appearance is a coup of historic proportions for the Washington Ballet, which will be forever linked with her boundary-busting debut in the most coveted ballerina role in the ballet repertoire. Copeland has danced the dual Odette/Odile role in Australia with ABT, one of the country’s leading ballet companies. Yet her opening-night performance with the Washington Ballet on April 9 at the Eisenhower Theater will trump her long-awaited New York debut with ABT. (She also will dance in a Sunday performance, as well as other performances.)
“As an artist, Misty is changing the paradigm as to what a ballerina should look like,” Webre said. “Her fierce yet delicate physicality, astonishing technique and her natural stage presence make her one of the most important female dancers in the U.S. today.”
Copeland said in a statement: “It certainly goes against traditional casting. I am so pleased to have the opportunity to show that African American ballerinas can also conform to the traditional vision for a swan as feminine and sylph-like while also being artistically and physically powerful.”
This production of “Swan Lake” is notable on several fronts. It is the first version of the full-length ballet to be assayed by the Washington Ballet in its 70-year existence. The company will perform an adaptation of the beloved ballet by Kirk Peterson, a former dancer with many companies, including ABT. The Tchaikovsky score will be performed live by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nabil Shehata.
It is especially significant that the nation’s capital will see dancers of color in the leading roles of the bewitched princess Odette, the prince who falls in love with her, and the seductive sorceress Odile, who tricks him and attempts to rupture his bond with Odette. Odette and Odile are traditionally danced by the same ballerina, as they will be in this production. Black dancers have been rare in leading ballet roles with major companies, especially in classical works such as “Swan Lake,” in which the star is traditionally white and waiflike. Copeland is neither. With her polished technique and a dramatic personality that shines to the upper balconies, her interpretation could well be the theatrical event of the season.
Copeland has been vocal about her quest to become ABT’s first black principal dancer. It’s not far-fetched to predict her dream could become reality in 2015 with the retirement of principals Paloma Herrera, Julie Kent and Xiomara Reyes at the end of the spring season. Copeland has become a pop-culture personality with explosive Internet fame, sparked by her psychedelic music video with Prince (“Crimson and Clover”) and subsequent tour, and her prominent Under Armour ad campaign. She was recently the subject of a profile in the New Yorker magazine.
The Washington Ballet has a history of inviting ballet celebrities to perform in its productions, such as ABT principals David Hallberg and Amanda McKerrow.
Why is Copeland doing this? When she was in Washington with ABT last spring, Webre invited her to the Washington School of Ballet’s satellite campus at THEARC in Southeast to speak to about 300 students and to read from her best-selling memoir, “Life in Motion.”
“She talked about her experience as a young African American girl trying to make it in ballet,” Webre said. “And we just clicked, she and I. At that time, we were planning ‘Swan Lake’ and this project seemed perfect. She was excited about it because she’s focused on the role this year, and this gives her another opportunity to keep the role active. And dancing with Brooklyn and in Washington, D.C., has a lot of resonance for her.”
The Washington Ballet will perform “Swan Lake” at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater April 8 (preview) through 12. Call 202-467-4600.