Her performance at the Kennedy Center marks a historic moment, when a dancer from one of the world's most prestigious companies, performing one of ballet's greatest oeuvres, can finally be black and dance the crowning role of the pure white swan.
Copeland spoke with The Post in a dressing room backstage about how she reached this moment. The conversation below has been lightly edited for length.
Q. What’s a word that defines your character?
Q. Why is that the word that you would pick?
A. I haven’t come from the typical path or background of someone who would make it to this level as a ballerina. When it came to my childhood—growing up in a single-parent home, often struggling financially—my mother definitely instilled in me and my siblings this strength, this will, to just continue to survive and succeed.
Perseverance has always just been something that was in me. And it was a tool that came in very handy as a ballerina. Being one of the few African American women to make it to this level in a classical ballet company, the level of American Ballet Theatre, takes a lot of perseverance.
Q. As a child and a younger dancer, what did perseverance look like for you?
A. Starting out at the age of 13 years old, taking my first class on a basketball court at the Boys and Girls Club, is not usual. Most dancers usually take up to 15 years to get the right amount of training to make it to a professional level [by 17]. I had to shove all of that into four years before I went on to join American Ballet Theatre in New York City.
Q. Now that you’re an accomplished dancer, does perseverance mean something else to you? What does it look like day-to-day in rehearsal?
A. Being a dancer is hard enough—it’s not just difficult because of the adversity that I’ve experienced. Something like 1 percent of dancers who train their whole lives actually get into a company at this level. That takes a lot of perseverance, in terms of hearing the words ‘no,’ auditioning over and over again, putting yourself through extremely grueling physical things. To get the right training takes extreme focus, dedication, sacrifice.
But once you become a professional, to get through a ballet like Swan Lake—four acts as the lead, changing character—the perseverance is incredible. It takes a lot to make it through and keep the same energy throughout the entire performance. And you know that you’re performing for people who may have never seen you before, so it’s a constant proving of yourself every single performance that you do.
Q. Do you think that has influenced the way that you dance?
A. It’s absolutely influenced the way I dance. Every time I step onto the stage, it’s not only proving to the audience that I’m capable but to myself. It’s a test—not knowing physically what state you’re going to be in each morning when you wake up or you step onto the stage, and knowing that you have to push your body to that extreme level, no matter how you’re feeling, no matter what condition your body is in.
Q. Three of ABT’s biggest stars are retiring soon. Have you had any conversations about promotion to principal?
A. That’s not something that really happens—those conversations. It’s so hard to know how a dancer’s body is going to hold up, so things like that are never promised to a dancer. But in a company like ABT, when you’re being prepared to be a principal dancer, you’re given principal roles to really test you to see if you’re capable, if you can be consistent with each opportunity you get. That’s where I am right now, having now done Firebird, having done Swan Lake in Australia, and doing Juliet this spring at the Met. Those are all preparation and the path that it takes to be considered for principal.
Q. Do you feel like you identify more as an artist or an athlete? And how do those two aspects of dance play off each other for you?
A. I’m definitely an artist. I think as a dancer it’s a given, at least for us, that we’re extremely hard-working athletes. But being an artist is so much more. It’s an understanding of telling a story with your body, of becoming an actress on stage, transforming into these ethereal characters that you don’t have experience becoming in your everyday life. It takes a lot of imagination.
Q. Do you think of yourself as a role model? Do you feel a responsibility in that way?
A. I didn’t used to feel that responsibility. Being a role model was something that I feel like happened naturally. I would get so many letters and people asking for advice, what my experiences had been. I know how important that is because I didn’t have that as a young student. But as an adult and as a professional, I had mentors and I wouldn’t be in this position had they not come into my life and helped keep me on the path and give me confidence on those days that I didn’t have it. At this point, I completely understand the responsibility, and I’m so happy to be in this position.
Q. What does it feels like to be on stage?
A. There is something that happens on stage that can’t really be replicated in the studio. There’s just an energy that comes from the audience, that comes from the lights hitting you, that comes from the sounds you’re hearing from the orchestra, that create this energy inside of you that allows your body to do things you just can’t do in the rehearsal studio.
Then there’s this immediate high you feel after doing such extremely physical movement, as well as giving so much of yourself emotionally and the focus that it takes mentally. It can take up to hours to come down from that high when you’re done with a performance.
That’s the incredible thing about this art form. We work so hard to make it look effortless, but people often see that as it not being difficult. It’s important to give people a peek behind the scenes to see that we’re not perfect, that we stop and start a lot, that things go wrong so much. We’re in the rehearsal studio to figure out how to work through those issues, because once you get out there and you’re in front of a live audience, you can’t stop.
It’s how you deal with all of the elements that are being thrown at you when you’re not perfectly centered. We’re human. As much as we train, we’re never going to be perfect. So it’s just dealing with how to balance all of those things in the moment.
Q. Do you get any jitters before performances these days?
A. It’s more excitement, anticipation of what’s to come. It’s a strange feeling not knowing how your body is going to react in that moment, so there’s a lot of build-up to performing live.
Q. How do you push through pain? How do you push yourself to new levels of performance?
A. The pain that dancers experience—I don’t know if it can be compared to any athlete, or anything. There’s something that is engrained in us as ballet dancers where we constantly have a poker face on. Even on stage, we experience some of the most extreme physical pain. You go through a ballet that’s three hours long and have to still put on a face that you’re enjoying yourself and performing. It takes a lot of mental strength to not let all those negative thoughts come into your mind, to just push them out and stay focused in the moment for a very long period of time. I think we’re some of the strongest people.
Q. What do you think has been a key to your success?
A. Belief in myself. And allowing people to come into my life who believe in me and push me on those days that I just don’t have it in me. I do my best not to allow other people’s words and criticism to get to me, and define me. That’s been a huge part of me staying on this path and my own journey to success.
Q. I’ve heard you describe yourself as very shy when you were young. Do you still think of yourself in that way?
A. I’ve just really developed into a different woman because of ballet. Even though you’re not speaking, it’s taught me to communicate and to be able to articulate myself in a way that I never could before.
I’m still shy in certain situations, though. Because I’m a performer, I don’t feel that I need to be on all the time and performing for people when I’m not on the stage. I’m very comfortable blending into the background if I’m not on stage.
Q. You’ve also talked about feeling, especially earlier in your training and career, like an outsider, like you didn’t belong. With time, have you come to feel like belonging is overrated?
A. I think it’s important as a child to feel like you belong. But belonging shouldn’t mean you are like everyone else. You want to feel accepted, but you don’t have to look like everyone around you, you don’t have to follow the exact same path as someone before you. I think that’s been my experience—that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be unique, that you can set your own path.
Q. What have you seen leadership look like in ballet?
A. I think it’s hard for dancers to envision themselves in that way. But we are. We are leaders in how the normal person (as we like to call the people who aren’t dancers) can envision a fantasy world. We’re leading them in a very artistic way of being able to see beauty, and I think it’s an important position to hold for art.