It’s rather ridiculous that it has taken so long for this milestone to be reached. I think back on the profoundly gifted Alicia Graf, formerly of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and other excellent African American ballerinas who could have been hired by the major ballet companies when DTH folded in 2004 and yet were not. (DTH reopened in 2013.)
Why not? A narrow perception of beauty and presumed audience acceptance of it. Copeland’s achievement is especially worthy of celebration as an important step forward in widening the range of accepted female beauty. I believe that is really what has limited such promotions in the past.
It is no longer terribly unusual for a black man to rise to the top rank in ballet. We are used to seeing black men as athletes and fashion icons and as strong, physically elegant figures, and accepting them as ballet princes and heroes follows from that.
But a ballerina carries a lot more on her slender shoulders. She has a special connotation of beauty and grace, with a subtle mix of untouchability, fragility and even purity. She is an ideal, an ideal held in the imaginations of a typically older, monied, generally white audience. Hers are not traits commonly associated with black women, and this perception — as wrong, small-minded and outdated as it is — has been a hurdle.
No more. Copeland’s many gifts called out for this promotion; she is too extraordinary to be overlooked. In fact, she should have been elevated before this. She is not only beautiful, and disciplined, and capable, but she’s also a physical anomaly, as one needs to be at the elite level of this most physically demanding art. Copeland has been called a prodigy, and that seems true, given her late start in ballet at age 13, her swift development of flexibility and her commanding technical strengths.
But Copeland is a high artist, too, as apparent in her range of roles, her musicality and the depth of feeling she conveys. ABT is lucky to have her, as are we who will watch what seems certain to be an ever more lyrical unspooling of fresh wonders.