PASADENA, Calif. — One of the key contemporary figures in the documentary film “American Ballet Theatre: A History” is Misty Copeland, who is only the third African-American female soloist in ABT’s history and its first in 20 years.
The California-bred dancer — who took her first ballet class at 13 — has performed many notable roles with the company, including the title character in “Firebird.” The sunny 32-year-old may also be familiar to a wider audience thanks to a guest judging stint on “So You Think You Can Dance” and from the buzz she’s generated from several other gigs, including appearances with Prince and in an Under Armour ad.
We recently sat down with Copeland to chat about the film and her career.
Q. You haven’t seen the film yet, but I would imagine it will be emotional for you to see your place in the legacy of ABT.
A. I absolutely agree. I clearly think I know [the story], but it’s different when you really get to see all the people who have come through and have built this thing that is American ballet now, that it’s not just a European or a Russian art form, to have the story of ABT finally be told.
It’s overwhelming to be a part of American Ballet Theatre. It’s something I craved as a child, to be part of something that was bigger than me. And to be a part of it as an African-American woman is even more [meaningful]. I never saw my life at this place.
Q. There has been a lot of discussion about minority representation in the arts, and ballet seems to be moving slowly in terms of diversity in principal dancers. After working inside ballet, do you have insight as to why?
A. It’s a lot of things. It’s not accessible in a lot of communities where a lot of African-Americans and other minorities are. And so there aren’t enough [dancers] to choose from that are trained, number one. And then really accepting the fact that racism exists in ballet and that even if there were a lot to choose from, would they be taken into these top-tier companies?
Q. Have you seen things change with audiences since you started?
A. In the past three years I’ve seen a shift that I never experienced throughout my 15-year career. I think it started when I started working with my manager, who came to me and said, “I am a black woman and I feel like I am very educated in the arts, and I don’t know who you are. How is that possible? What do you want?”
I said, “I want more people to know what ballet is, and I want to diversify it.”
When I had the opportunity to do “Firebird,” she really put it out there because she understood the importance of getting [the] story across: a black woman doing this role with a classical ballet company. That’s when I started to see a shift in the audience. There was an interest because there was someone that [minority parents] could show their daughter and say, “We belong in this space as well.” In December, when I did Clara in “The Nutcracker,” I’ve never experienced that many black people in a theater in my life. Just to see that, it makes me so emotional. This is what I dreamt of!
Q. Like many classical art forms, ballet’s audience is aging. How do you reach out to a younger audience?
A. I think at this point you get to them through social media, through TV, through movies. As much as the ballet world likes to stay in their niche and not change, they have to. You have to come along with the times. I do get a lot of criticism for the things that I do, and I don’t just do these things just to do them — they’re very thought out. Working with Prince I knew I was going to be performing en pointe to an entire arena at Madison Square Garden and they were going to see ballet and it was going to spark some kind of conversation, like doing Under Armour, all of these things that are so outside the realm of what a ballet dancer “should” do. But I know the bigger picture and benefit of it.