Misty Copeland, The Ballerina of Our Generation?

I hadn’t seen much of American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland over the years, particularly in full-length productions where a dancers’ skills are truly tested. Due to work considerations, I generally attend performances late in the week. Up to this year, Misty was featured in matinée performances. This Met season, Misty was cast in prime time with two full length Saturday evening performances and one on Friday. I was finally able to experience Misty mania.

Misty was featured as the lead, Kitri, in two Don Quixote performances this season. As I noted in a recent review, I was underwhelmed with her Kitri as it registered low on the WOW! factor scale with weak turns and low jumps. Since Kitri is all about big jumps and turns, this casting was a bad idea, like a box checking exercise that allowed her to work her way down the classics list. Her performance was an exercise in getting by, a cautious rendering that included shortcuts in certain steps. Misty’s Kitri had none of the “go for broke qualities” that is the essence of a successful Kitri. Her jumps were adequate but not notable-for example, the iconic leap featured in many Don Quixote promotional photos in which Kitri does a split jump with her back foot almost touching her head, made famous by Soviet star Maya Plisetskaya. There were segments that Misty did well, particularly in the dream scene in Act II, with nicely timed hops on pointe and high grand jetés finished off with exciting piqué turns. However, her solos in Act I and Act III were short of her high Act II standard.

Misty’s Odette/Odile in Swan Lake displayed nice energy and drama, more successful than her Kitri in Don Quixote

On difficult segments, Misty tends to simplify the step. An example is Kitri’s turn in attitude (leg bent behind her) after a supported promenade in the Act III pas de deux. Generally Kitri does at least one turn before going to a knee; Misty did about a quarter pivot before quickly going to her knee. Another example is Misty’s fouetté turns, the punctuating mark in Kitri’s solos in Act III. She started her fouettés off-center at stage left rather than the customary center stage. The reason is that she, like fellow ABT Principal Dancer Hee Seo, consistently travels to the right as her turns progress. In the Saturday Don Quixote, her rightward movements were pronounced as she started her turns, punctuated by a single pirouette to finish.

Her Saturday evening Odette/Odile in Swan Lake was more successful, as she displayed nice energy and drama. As Odette, Misty was a vulnerable swan as she encountered Prince Siegfried in the forest with furious bourrées. Her beat section, my favorite in Act II, was well done with flowing arms. Her Odette solos were expressive with nice extensions and timing. As the sly seductress Odile, Misty displayed great confidence. Her technical work was fine as she navigated the difficult parts, simplifying some steps as she did in Don Quixote. For example, the beginning of Odette’s first solo calls for pirouettes followed by an attitude turn (click the link and see 1:47 for an example from ABT’s Gillian Murphy). Most ABT dancers perform this en face (facing the audience). On Misty’s turns, she started croisé (facing the corner) which reduces the turns necessary to finish en face. On her fouettés in the Grand Pas de Deux, she did about 20 single turns, then shut them down with a final jeté to fill out the music. Stopping the turns early and filling out the music with another step seemed to be planned, not improvised as with some dancers intent on filling 32 counts with turns.

Overall a solid Swan Lake with the always impeccable Herman Cornejo as Siegfried (with Tom Forster as Rothbart-very effective with flashes of Marcelo Gomes, who owns the role).

Misty Copeland Herman Cornejo review Swan Lake

Misty Copeland and Herman Cornejo. Click for more photos.

Misty’s strength is her dramatic side. I particularly enjoyed her Odette, confident in seducing an unsuspecting Siegfried. Parts of her Kitri in Don Quixote showed considerable spunk. Technically her dancing is fine, but not distinguished relative to other Principal Dancers or the current crop of great young ABT Soloists. Among ABT Principal Dancers, she compares with Hee Seo, another more lyrical dancer sometimes challenged in difficult steps.

Misty the Brand

Misty is certainly a celebrity. She is the subject of numerous articles in the popular press focusing on many aspects of her life and personal history, making Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2015 and a subject of a 60 Minutes profile. Her product endorsements include popular brands American Express, COACH, Dannon yogurt, Dr. Pepper, Seiko watches, and Under Armor athletic apparel, in addition to a Barbie Misty doll. Given her exposure on television and the popular press, Misty is a familiar face, even to those with little interest in ballet.

However, some of the publicity she generates is out of proportion to her accomplishments on the stage. She made the Dance Magazine Power List of the most influential people in dance, proclaiming that she is “…the ballerina of our generation.” After watching Paloma Herrera, Gillian Murphy, Natalia Osipova, Polina Semionova, Diana Vishneva over the years, such statements make me want to throw up my hands in exasperation.

Misty’s celebrity is a product of another member of Dance Magazine’s most influential list, her manager Gilda Squire. According to the article, Gilda got her first lessons in branding in the corporate communications department at Goldman, Sachs. “I loved the idea of shaping how you think about something.” Gilda has done a great job shaping how we think about Misty since 2011, making Misty, a good but not distinguished talent in a specialized artistic field, part of mainstream culture.

Misty as “…the ballerina of our generation” makes me want to throw up my hands in exasperation

The list of dancers with name recognition among non-ballet fans is short. Any list of ballet celebrities whose fame transcends the ballet world would include Mikhail Baryshnikov-global; Rudolph Nureyev-global; Julio Bocca-Latin America; Maya Plisetskaya-Russia, Roberto Bolle-Italy, Margot Fonteyn-Great Britain, Sylvie Guillem, Yvette Chauviré-France. A common thread among the dancers is their rare technical abilities combined with dramatic flair and charismatic persona that put them far above the crowd. Such talent allowed these dancers to go mainstream in popular culture.1

Misty’s source of celebrity status is different from the dancers above. Rather than gaining fame through jaw-dropping technical achievement and memorable dramatics, her source of popularity is her background and path breaking accomplishment as the first African-American Principal Dancer at ABT. For star dancers, dancing principal roles in their early 20s was just the start of their journey. For Misty’s fans, her promotion to Principal Dancer at age 32 is an end itself, with her performances a celebration of her achievement.

A positive of Misty mania is the large and diverse crowd that attends her performances. The ABT audience, like most ballet companies (except for Dance Theatre of Harlem), is largely white as are the dancers. An expanding ballet audience is a great achievement. It will be interesting to see if her fans expand their attention to other dancers and companies. Also, whether interest in Misty translates into a more diverse dancer population in the future.

Another way to increase interest in dance is to make the art form more accessible in the form of DVDs, live cinema, and streaming. As I wrote last year in an article on ballet marketing, ABT and New York City Ballet for some reason refuse to engage in this form of audience expanding marketing.

Footnote

  1. Margot Fonteyn’s “…effortless artistry was equated with a British style,” and her “blend of refinement and passion redefined 20th-century ballet style,” (Obituary by Jack Anderson, New York Times); Nureyev possessed “…animal magnetism and sensuality,” “…one of the most charismatic ballet stars of the 20th century” (Obituary by Jack Anderson, New York Times); Plisetskaya was “…renowned for her fluidity of movement, expressive acting and willful personality” (Obituary by Sophia Kishkovsky, New York Times). Baryshnikov became a household name based on jaw-dropping athletic steps that made experienced ballet followers ask “What was that?” combined with great charisma and theatricality. Similar comments can be made of Julio Bocca, a legend in his home country of Argentina in which 300,000 people lined the Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires to see his final performance.

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  1. “As, seraph-like, from out the dark clouds’ chorus,
    With softness woven, graceful, light, and fair,
    Resembling Her, in the blue æther o’er us,
    A slender figure hovers in the air,—
    Thus didst thou see her joyously advance,
    The fairest of the fairest in the dance…”