Life in Motion
An Unlikely Ballerina;
By Misty Copeland; Touchstone Hardcover / Simon and Schuster; ISBN: 9781476737980; $24.99
It is a very good thing that American Ballet Theatre soloist (since 2007) has written her memoir. More than likely it will be the first among many 'mike checks' on her career, personal transformation, and needs assessment. Right now the assessment her visibility connotes about dance in the USA is that the continuum for dancers of color is indeed a story of adversity and grace. To date there have been only three (3) other female African Diaspora dancers that ABT has employed. They are Raven Wilkinson (1949 - 1955), Anna Benne Sims (circa 1980 - 1983) and Nora Kimball (1983 - 1986). How's that as a record of diversity, equal opportunity and the American Way? While readers reflect on this ballet dance reality, let me add a portion of the 'backstory' to why this lack of Black females is a major platform of our cultural mores.
African Americans are limitedly involved in Ballet for extra reasons beyond the obvious of institutional racism, bias, and the Board/artistic directors' desire to have all dancers be the color of a freshly peeled apple. Even we in the business tend to fantasize that in arts and culture there are better opportunities for both employment and visibility. This is true compared to corporate America's tallysheets and yet can tend to be more of the same given all the pressures, stress and subtle ways to be a crunched number in the bean count and yet ignored on the back row of the spotlights.
Come on USA dance employers: why the constant need to emphasize census category mixed race category as if that is the reason one can 'pass' (the brown bag test) through the gates of employment as a ballet dancer? Dancers of Color are always exceptional prodigy, the first (of their race), over achieving phenomenal Black Women. These Black Women who dance suffer lots of migraines, stress fractures, self-doubts, W.E.B.Dubois' double consciousness and yet; still only obtain the status of soloist if at all in the major USA ballet companies.
This is For the little Brown Girls...
This mantra is interspersed throughout the book. Sometimes it seems to be internal musings, and a coping mechanism to keep the eye on the prize. Here the prize is not a sparrow.... It is a Firebird!
This is For the little Brown Girls...
The time investments, financial cost, commitment of adults (to get you to class in a timely and consistent fashion) are challenges for all children in professional arts and sports. Medals, door prizes, plaques, prestigious international forays to represent the USA require a team of handlers. Everyone on the team believes in the youth and fosters the growth and development of the young talent. In Misty Copeland's example there are other factors to also ponder: 1954's Brown vs. The Board of Education, 1964's The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed, along with Title Nine.
For 2014 during the rapid browning of America (USA populations), professional ballet companies, Boards of Directors and Artistic Directors are seeking new audiences and capacity filled houses. One model that Broadway productions uses , is to re-do chestnuts in blackface, i.e. Hello Dolly, The Wiz, do nontraditional casting, and engage renowned stars of the entertainment industry like Wynton Marsalis, Tony Kushner, K.D. Lang, Vanessa Williams, Bill T. Jones , etc., et al to generate buzz, new and vintage sagas of Americana...like The Book of Mormon; FELA!; Holler… If You Can Hear Me…; Kinky Boots.
Misty Copeland's memoir tells how attending The Boys and Girls Clubs of America launched her ballet training at 13. Instructor Cynthia Bradley made the commitment of time, emotional support, financial resources and expertise to Misty Copeland. Bradley also had her own school: the San Pedro Dance Center, but also 'gave' classes at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. As time passed, she saw that Misty could do so much more than just learning the ABC's of ballet. Consequently; Bradley expanded Misty's training with advanced classes at her studio. As the lessons continued, the drive times back and forth eventually required Copeland's family to allow Misty to live with Ms. Bradley, her husband Patrick and son. This idyllic dance saturation and structure lasted more than two years. Then the tale of two cities, many lifestyles, and numerous walks along the wild side began anew. Copeland's mother felt that it was time for her to return home.
Legal proceeding began in 1998. Mrs. Sylvia DelaCerna (Misty's Mom) filed restraining orders to the emancipated minor request that Misty C. filed to continue dancing and living with her custodial guardians: the Bradley's. This generated lots of negative press in newspaper headlines and TV sound-bytes. Eventually it was agreed to, by all parties to stop the court case. Misty returned home and a new ballet teacher continued her training. For a very long time, as part of the court proceeding settlement, Cynthia Bradley, her husband & son could not see Misty, or, engage further in her career development.
This is Misty Copeland's story; not her mother's. Yes Copeland is one of six siblings; but like many dance careers: after the hometown sacrifices and accolades, it's time to move on to the Big Apple. Just ask Roberta Sue Ficker (from Cinn. Ohio) about career transition phases that require one to be in New York. Maybe you know her by her stage name: Suzanne Farrell. After numerous summer intensives, big & small recitals, professional debuts, print work, wait staffing and so on... Lots of dancers move to NYC for their dance development. Those that are chaperoned by parents, other relatives, friends, etc fare more easily; but there are lots of havens for women / girls that make Hamlet's ode's to Ophelia "Get thee to a nunnery" more than a notion. Safe haven, structured expectations and quick transport to studios from said nunnery domicile make living, learning and dancing in New York a Cinderella' after the prince and fitted glass slipper. In Misty Copeland rendering of the narrative, we are talking about very large pointe shoes… like those former ABT dancer Christine Sarry would wear that elongated her similar five foot two inch physique. Copeland's story also contains Odalisque roles and Firebirds.
Let's talk some more about the Prince aspect to this personal life script. Here the P R I N C E.... is the purple one with and without his purple rain. Readers: hope you remember the artist who for a time requested to be 'nameless' has had dance and music adventures before, with The Joffrey Ballet. In 2009, Misty Copeland first appeared in a music video, and then during an ABT hiatus, she worked on the remake of Crimson and Clover. Good vibes and good results from these impromptu interactions suggested, T.B.C. Later, Copeland was contacted again and was actually given release time to participate in one of Prince's European tours. She has even done his recent USA tour that culminated at Madison Square Garden.
Working with Prince – experiencing his brilliance, his attention to detail, but also his belief in me-boosted my confidence immeasurably. Executing something that was his vision but based largely on my own, without the incremental coaching of my ballet mistresses, made me feel independent, as if I was truly a professional at last.
Page 220; Paragraph Four
What best becomes a legend....?
Back in the day; for Nureyev, Martha Graham and Margot Fontaine it was a Blackgamma mink coat. Times have changed to replace such opulence with 24/7 surveillance, 'selfies' Twitter feeds, and so on. The beat and the steps always go on. Yet: How does one cope with the grueling schedules, stress, isolation, common health challenges of female athletics/dancers like lack of menstrual cycle, eating disorders, irregular bone density, stress fractures, etc., loneliness/homesickness and millennium peer values? Each contemporary talent's answers to these conundrum share common threads, and, also add a new flavor to the cultural gumbo of the USA.
I remember that awful, empty feeling in my gut when I walked into rehearsal with a ballet mistress, knowing that she had already made up her mind about who I was, and what I was capable of. I could always tell. Having to put on a face of confidence knowing that I would most likely not be cast, no matter how well I performed, taxed me emotionally. As did feeling that I sometimes had to defend who I was.
"But we don't think of you as black" was the refrain from some of my peers when I made small attempts to open up about my concerns that I had a harder time getting some classical roles or getting recognition for some of my performances. Of course they were trying to be nice, emphatic even. Instead; it made me wonder, "Well how do you see black people in general if you believe not thinking of me that way is a complement...."
Page 228; paragraph two
Three years later, I was playing the part of Puss in Boots in Sleeping Beauty. The make-up person was standing there ready with her container of powder to turn my face white. I looked at her; "I don't understand why cats have to be white" I said defiantly: "I want to be a brown cat." And so I was.
Page 228; paragraph Three
This is for the little brown girls....
Regrettably most little brown girls will not read this book in its current format. Instead; it is a commodity for parents and 'reality TV folks that thrive on adversity sagas with redemption by the time of the rolling finale credits captions. My hope is that Simon and Schuster will produce another Misty Copeland book this time for younger audiences via graphic ZINES and/or Remy Charlip type story boards. Such a text could have illustrations of Misty Copeland as a child in drill team practices, early Boys and Girls Clubs' classes in gym shorts and sneakers, developing nuances and performance 'chops' with Debbie Allen's Chocolate Nutcracker, or swans in LA, accomplished rock star /MTV dancer... all the way to Firebird posters flying along billboards & subways.
Certainly latchkey children that attend Boys and Girls Clubs of America could benefit from such print and electronic options. Storytelling to diverse Pre-K brown girls matters a lot for visionary results. Jacques D'Amboise with his National Dance Institute, Eliot Feld's Kids Ballet Tech, Houston Ballet's Principal Lauren Anderson's Outreach program all welcome more overtures to cultivate new dancers, audiences and connections to the numerous so called 'others'. Great to learn that as possible Misty Copeland will generate for ABT a formal ballet training program for Boys and Girls Clubs of America (Project Plié.)
In June 2011, I would join the likes of Denzel Washington, Jennifer Lopez, Kerry Washington, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Smokey Robinson, Magic Johnson and Sugar Ray Leonard, among other accomplished Boys and Girls Clubs of America alumni, to participate in a PSA that would run as an inspirational commercial for the clubs.
Page 232; Paragraph One
Come on America....Come on American Ballet Theatre. Give Misty Copeland her highly deserved "Principal" status. We should be much farther along since legendary Principal Ballerina Janet Collins tenure at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951. In our community, Black dance talents choreograph, teach, and perform, ballet. Like Janet Collins,they also are legendary and yet under-appreciated at best... at worst invisible. Just ask professors and scholars Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Dr. Melayne White Dixon, Richard Long (deceased), Professors Tamara L. Brown, and Thomas DeFrantz, among many others about the folks before, during and well after Janet Collins 'debut that can now witness Misty Copeland ascension into pointe shoe visibility.
In closing this commentary it is important to salute Misty Copeland's accomplishments and shout out how proud the Africa Diaspora dance community is of her. You Go Girrrrrl! Audience development, like the S T E A M education mandates to keep the USA significant and participatory requires better inroads into the vast human resources we have that are underdeveloped/underutilized and the big one: Under-supported with finances. Diverse cultural signifier matters for the diverse 21st century. Let's all help Misty Copeland achieve greater input: For the Little Brown Girls... now and, to come.
Editor's Note: Many special thanks, kudos, and, much love; to Charisse Jones for her input in this memoir. I could be wrong on the dates of soloists Anna Benne Sims and Nora Kimball's tenure at American Ballet Theatre. Mea culpa if this is an error as to dates. It is important to invite readers and Ms. Copeland to check out the books of the aforementioned scholars. Additionally; the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has a traveling exhibit entitled "Classic Black" that continues to document African American dancers, performers, professional companies and educators that have contributed to the United States cultural heritage.
© 2014 Bernadine Jennings