When it came time for Misty Copeland to select who would play her character’s boyfriend for this year’s Pirelli Calendar, lensed by famed photographer Albert Watson, the decision was easy. Copeland had been working alongside Calvin Royal III, a fellow dancer with the American Ballet Theater, for years already, and to her, it was important that a mainstream audience sees two black dancers work side by side.
“He’s stunning. And he’s nice!” Copeland tells CR. “Whenever I have an opportunity to do a gig, I always consider him because I think it’s so important for our communities to see two black classical dancers together, and besides that, he’s so incredibly talented.”
Back in 2015, Copeland became the first black woman to be promoted to principal dancer during the American Ballet Theater’s 150-year history. At the time, Copeland was dancing Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, but it was the small window of time leading up to the announcement that felt the most stressful for her. “There were so many articles that month asking, ‘Is it gonna happen? Is it gonna happen for her? If it doesn’t, is she gonna stop?’ That, to me, was pressure,” she says.
Copeland quickly became a voice for diversity in ballet by advocating for other women and people of color to receive the same opportunities she’s had. She recently starred in the Disney film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and fronts the calendar, debuting today, alongside CR star Gigi Hadid, Alexander Wang, Julia Garner, Laetitia Casta, and Sergei Polunin. This year’s edition tells the story of four different women and their relentless ambition to achieve their dreams, albeit in unconventional ways. To celebrate the calendar’s launch, CR spoke with Copeland about working with Watson and what she wants to see change in ballet.
Tell me about your character and what it was like shooting the calendar.
“She’s a ballet dancer and she and her boyfriend live in Miami and they’re both struggling [and] trying to get to where they see success. Her dream is to move to Paris and dance professionally, so she’s doing everything she can to make ends meet and get there, so she also strips to survive financially. It’s just a very human story of what so many people experience and the sacrifices they have to make to do what they love for a living. I think we can all connect to that in some way, but again, I’m playing a role and that’s what I do on stage, so it’s just awesome. [Watson] gave me so much detail that I didn’t really have to do much. I felt like I got there, he gave me the ideas he wanted, and saw that me being in the environment let me become the character.”
Speaking of diverse representation, I recently read about how they’re just starting to make pointe shoes for black men and women. Are there other hurdles in ballet that most people wouldn’t know unless they were in the industry?
“The ballet world kind of goes through these cycles and lulls, and all of these things that are happening now have always been happening, there was just no platform for it. Behind the scenes, there have always been diversity initiatives in major ballet companies. There have always been African American women in companies, but we don’t know about them. Their stories aren’t told. And then they’re like, ‘Oh, this is great. It’ll look good for diversity in dance.’ And then it just fades away because there’s no one there keeping it going. I feel that we’re at a point where I’m so fortunate to have the platforms that I do to speak very candidly about my experiences as a black woman in the classical ballet world, but also just to bring more attention to the lack of diversity.”
And most people didn’t know black ballerinas used makeup on their shoes.
“People don’t really know about the ballet world, especially in America. When you think about it, it’s a European art form. Ask anyone what a ballerina looks like. Maybe not today, but they’d describe porcelain skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes or something. The ballet pink tights were made to look like your skin, and the pointe shoes are the color of European pink, and that’s also supposed to look like your skin, so it really says a lot about the ballet world. It breaks our line when you have black dancers. You have pink here and your skin is brown. It’s supposed to be this beautiful, continuous line being created. But yeah, it just says so much about the lack of diversity. It’s so simple and small that it becomes this thing in the subconscious mind of a black dancer that you might not even be aware of—that every single day you put on those European pink tights and European pink shoes and it’s like ‘I don’t belong here.'”
What do you want to see change?
“I don’t want [diversity] to be a fad. I want it to be something that really changes Americans’ lives. It’s really an investment. In the way we celebrate athletes, football players, basketball players, or Hollywood actresses, I think we deserve that same amount of respect and recognition and visibility. When we do that, diversity is naturally integrated into these art forms. We just kind of lived in this cave thats just like ‘Let us out! Clear the cobwebs! We’re here!’ So I want to continue to share our history just as black people within the ballet world that so many people don’t know about. When you do that, that’s when people connect with it. Nothing can be sustained when there’s no diversity.”
Do you feel any pressure to be a voice for diversity as the first black principal dancer?
“I feel that I’ve taken on the responsibility to speak on the lack of diversity and my experience, and to share the story of other black and brown peoples’ experiences as well. It’s amazing to be visible, to have young kids that can look at me and see representation that will hopefully change the course of their lives. Maybe if I’d seen something like that, I’d have taken up ballet sooner and thought, ‘Oh, this is a world I can thrive in.'”
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