Misty Copeland on How Race Informs Her Art, and Her Activism

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Trail-blazing ballerina Misty Copeland is adding “executive producer” to her repertoire. The 38-year-old dancer, who became the American Ballet Theatre’s first female Black principal half-a-dozen years ago, has begun work on a film to raise awareness about homelessness through her Life In Motion production company. 

Copeland took up ballet at the relatively advanced age of 13 — within three months she went en pointe, and by 15 she had won awards for her dancing. But that success came with the stark realization that her exceptionalism wasn’t confined to her technical skill. 

"I understand the importance of me having a voice and me having a presence on the stage and beyond the stage," Copeland says in a recent video interview for the new series Black in Focus. She has set out to encourage more Black dancers and has made representation and access a core component of her work, including her coming film project. Karen Toulon, chief correspondent for Bloomberg Equality, talked with Copeland about overcoming challenges, the evolution of traditional ballet and ballet audiences, and her unique brand of activism through art. (Her comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Karen Toulon: From when you were a little girl, you seemed to be aware that your turning up could make a difference — that your representation mattered. Why do you think that is?

Misty Copeland: A lot had to do with the fact that I did not grow up in the ballet world. Having started at 13, I only trained for four years before moving to New York. I was raised in a diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles. I was raised with a very clear understanding of my identity as a mixed girl, as a Black girl and how I would be perceived and received by the world and by society. Having that grounding going into ballet gave me a different point of view, a different perspective on how I wanted to exist in this world. 

I watched Black dancers get fired. I saw Black dancers get discriminated against. I found ways of communicating, having conversations about race. That’s a responsibility I understood and took on. And I knew that by staying at ABT and being that voice, eventually there would be more to come after me. With my books, especially “Bunheads,” it’s an opportunity to show a really positive side of ballet. But also I want to hold the ballet world accountable to the things they need to change.

KT: The Derek Chauvin murder trial began this week; he’s accused of kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes until he was dead. Since then, we’ve seen billions of dollars of pledges to increase Black representation — out of bleak times can come change. Theaters have been closed due to the pandemic, but when they open, is this an opportunity for performance spaces and companies to rethink how they reopen and who they invite in?

MC: I’m approaching my 20th season with American Ballet Theatre. I’ve never seen as much progress as I have in the past year. With the murder of George Floyd, the ballet world has been flipped upside down. I’ve been speaking out about racism in ballet and within my own company, and this is the first time I feel like I am being heard, and the first time my Black and brown colleagues feel comfortable enough and supported enough to speak up. 

The ballets we’re doing, the stories that we’re telling — whose stories are they? They’re not ours; they’re not American stories. They’re definitely not the stories of immigrants or minorities, or empowering women. There’s no way to go backwards. People will hold companies accountable, including my company American Ballet Theatre. I certainly will be. I’m excited to see the new creations, works and stories that will be told.

KT: Another trend we have been seeing is more majority companies having business relationships with minority companies as awareness of Black brands and Black spending power grows. Recent Nielsen data puts Black spending at $1.2 trillion, just under the GDP of Australia. Early in your career, you wowed us with your Under Armour commercials, now you're one of the new brand ambassadors for Breitling (a luxury watchmaker). Financials aside, what do you think about when you're considering an endorsement opportunity?

MC: It has to make sense for me. I have to be able to stand behind it wholeheartedly and truly believe in whatever partnership I have with whatever organization. It’s important for your value and your worth to be acknowledged; that’s often an issue with Black athletes and especially with Black dancers. I have an incredible team of Black women behind me who understand what it means to be in this position. It’s important not to say “yes” to everything just because it’s an opportunity.

KT: Let's talk about a project that is truly yours — Life In Motion Productions. You're going to serve as executive producer and the lead in a film you will begin shooting this summer. What can you tell us about this project? 

MC: I’ve had a lot of feelings about how dance and ballet are depicted in film and in media. Why would I want to put my daughter in ballet if I thought it was going to be like “Black Swan,” or she would end up an exotic dancer, or with an eating disorder or a really unhealthy relationship with a director? 

These are all the reasons why I wanted to have a production company; I wanted to be a Black woman behind the camera and to have the voice and lens of people who have actually lived it. In June, we’re filming an arts activism project, a short silent film. It’s set in Oakland, California, and it’s shining a light on the homelessness crisis — bringing ballet, turf dancing and Bay area people together, to show that anyone can be the face of homelessness. It wasn’t really until ballet that I started to develop as a person after not having a home a lot of my youth.

KT: What would you say to someone who says, “Come on Misty, darling, you’re a ballerina. Why don’t you just put on your toe shoes and dance?”

MC: There’s no way I can be me and continue to grow and be the artist that I am if I’m not expressing all of these things that are important, and that I know will make an impact and change someone’s life.
 

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