Misty Copeland and the Fouetté Video

 Above Photo: Misty Copeland and Herman Cornejo, June 17, 2017. I discussed Misty Copeland’s technical issues in two previous reviews from last year’s American Ballet Theatre Met season: Don Quixote and Swan Lake. In general, in difficult technical segments, Misty tends to simplify steps, in particular her fouetté turns, the punctuating mark in Kitri and Odile’s solos in the Grand Pas de Deux.

No longer must we rely on descriptions of her turns in the iconic Swan Lake segment as it is now on YouTube. A pirate video from ABT’s March 15 Swan Lake performance has been the source of much commentary (postings on BalletAlert go on for pages). The 57-second video filmed from the audience shows the turn section of the Grand Pas de Deux with Misty and Herman Cornejo in which Misty does 13 turns followed by piqué turns to fill out the music before Herman does pirouettes á la seconde.

My thoughts:

  • Some suggest that Misty had an off night in Singapore. I disagree. Her Singapore fouettés were not an anomaly as the video generally represents the quality of her turns, albeit at a slightly lower level. I saw her in Don Quixote and Swan Lake last Met season. She generally performed 15-18 fouetté turns followed by simpler piqué turns to fill out the music as she did in Singapore. The only difference is that her Singapore segment was captured on video.
  • Her fouettés are tentative, without the necessary energy and gusto to maintain the repetitive series of turns. Her “spotting” lacks spark as her head blandly moves from front to front (spotting is a technique dancers use during turns by delaying rotation of the head until it snaps around to the original position, focusing on a particular “spot” while the body rotates at a constant speed.) Also characteristic of her turns is a rightward movement of her body during the turns. Last year, she started her turns stage left rather than center stage to compensate. In Singapore she started slightly stage right. Given her progressive movements to the right, she had to shut down the turns before she ran out of space.
  • On the video, it wasn’t just her fouetté turns that were problematic; her piqué turns that followed were also lackluster, with her trailing leg barely off the ground rather than in a retiré position.
  • The contrast between her turn segment and Herman’s is stark. Herman was impressive as always in his pirouettes á la seconde (also known as turns in second position), a great mix of power and control. The point of Odile’s technical wizardry with 32 turns is to whip Prince Siegfried into a state of extreme desire, enticing the Prince to break his vow to Odette. Given the mismatch of technical achievement, it looks as if the Prince is seducing Odile, not in line with the story.

Misty Responds

It is unusual for a dancer to respond to negative posts on social media. However, Misty was quick to post a response to the video on YouTube. In addition, on Instagram she copied a negative comment from the video and posted the following:

I’m happy to share this because I will forever be a work in progress and will never stop learning. I learn from seeing myself on film and rarely get to. So thank you.
I will always reiterate that I am by no means the best in ballet. I understand my position and what I represent. I know that I’m in a very unique position and have been given a rare platform. All I’ve ever wanted is to bring ballet to more people and to help to diversify it.
I’ve worked extremely hard to be where I am and I believe that what I bring to the table is authentic artistry with a unique point of view through my life experiences, and my unusual path and upbringing. Also as a black woman and black ballerina. I would love to see all of the incredible deserving black dancers get the opportunities that I have.
I will forever be humbled and extremely grateful for the fact that I get to do what I love for a living, that I get to do all of the incredible roles that I do, in particular Swan Queen.
There are so many ballerinas that never get to experience dancing the most iconic and demanding role in a ballerinas repertoire. I have so so so much respect for what I do and for the ballerinas I stand on the shoulders of. I’m in awe everyday that I am a part of such an incredible art form that has changed and enriched my life in so many ways and that I get to do it all with ABT.
I don’t decide who’s promoted or what roles I dance. I never envisioned myself as the Swan Queen after being in the company for almost 15 years before i was given the opportunity. I have such deep and conflicting feelings connected to Swan Lake. As a black woman and as a ballerina given the chance to take on this role. I often question if I deserve to perform this role. My conclusion, I do. Some of the most memorable Swan Queens in history have brought so much more to this role without having to present the incredible and evolved technique of today by doing insane tricks that bring some to see Swan Lake. For the anticipated 32 fouettés. But it is so much more than that. People come to see ballet for the escape. For the experience of being moved through our movement and artistry, not to score us on the technicality of what we do. This is why ballet is not a sport.
A ballerinas career is not, nor should be defined by how many fouettés she executes. They are a part of the choreography to tell a story of pulling off the entrancement she holds over prince Siegfried. The point is to finish the 3rd act with a whirlwind movement that sucks him in just one last time before it’s revealed that Odile is not Odette.
This is the incredible beauty of ballet. To move people.
I’m happy to have this dialogue because it’s something I believe in whole heartedly. The history of ballet and it’s origin of pure freedom and expression is what we need to hold onto. Not to come into the theatre as a critic armed with judgement.
I do appreciate the changes in the ballet technique, focused on evolving our technical abilities, but the point is to move people and for them to understand the stories we tell through dance. And that is an incredible responsibility and opportunity I will never take for granted.

What followed were gushing puff pieces in Elle, Dance Magazine, Glamour #1, Glamour #2, Cosmopolitan. Glowing comments from Glamour included: “Misty Copeland is one of the most talented working ballerinas right now, full stop.”  “For what it’s worth, Copeland’s so-called “fail” was absolute fire.” Dance Magazine’s contribution to this media blitz was to argue that fouettés don’t matter, and that Misty is held to a higher standard than other dancers. This looks like an orchestrated public relations effort to get out in front of the negative video: (1) post a comment early in the comment thread of the video; (2) find a negative comment on Twitter and respond; (3) alert media allies for favorable press portraying gracious Misty versus The Haters.

Misty Generates Divided Opinions

This episode and resulting commentary illustrate the polar extreme opinions of Misty.

As I noted in a previous article, 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 in addition to numerous product endorsements. Given her exposure on television and the popular press, Misty is a familiar face, even to those with little interest in ballet.

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-France. A common thread among the dancers is their rare technical abilities combined with dramatic flair and charismatic persona that put them far above other dancers. Such talent allowed these dancers to go mainstream in popular culture.

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.

For her fans, technical commentary on her dancing misses the main point; her primary contribution is that she has broken barriers in the ballet world, serving as an inspiration and role model to many who would otherwise not be exposed to the art form, helping to diversify dance. To her detractors, the publicity she generates is out of proportion to her accomplishments on stage. Examples are comments from Glamour above in addition to the Dance Magazine Power List of the most influential people in dance, proclaiming that she is “…the ballerina of our generation.”

A video that shows technique not up to current day standards adds to the gulf between her technical abilities and her press fueled celebrity status.