NEW YORK (AP) — Misty Copeland has already achieved a crossover pop culture fame that few dancers could ever hope to have. She’s a best-selling author, a celebrity spokesperson, and a role model. In just the last five months, she’s appeared in a Broadway show, presented at the Tonys, danced on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and attended a White House state dinner. And now she’s in the movies – the subject of “A Ballerina’s Tale,” a new documentary by Nelson George.
And yet, Copeland on Wednesday begins just her first season as a principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre. “I do feel that my career really is just now beginning,” she says, laughing at how incongruous that sounds.
The offers and opportunities keep coming – but no matter the distractions, one thing comes first, she says. “I’ve never sacrificed a ballet class, I’ve never sacrificed a rehearsal, and that will NEVER happen,” Copeland said in an interview last week, scheduled on a Monday because that’s the only day she can ever take off from her ABT duties. “It’s not a hard balance. The dance is always first.”
It’s been less than four months since Copeland, now 33, made dance history by becoming the first female African-American principal dancer in ABT’s 75-year history. That came just days after her widely covered New York debut in the ultimate ballerina role, Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake.” It’s a famously demanding role for any ballerina, but for Copeland, it was that much tougher because the world was watching.
From a purely dance perspective, it’s clear she wishes she’d had a little time to quietly grow into the role.
“I clearly am in a different position when I make these debuts and all the critics are coming,” she says, somewhat wistfully. “That doesn’t happen to most dancers on their debuts, that they’re being critiqued like that. It’s a very interesting position to be in.”
There was another challenge, too, one that hardly anyone watching that historic performance was aware of. Copeland was still feeling the effects of surgery she had in 2012 to repair six stress fractures in her left tibia. It was a career-threatening injury; she’s still not 100 percent.
“It’s been three years and I’m still not jumping fully,” Copeland says. “I mean, 32 fouettes (whipping turns) in ‘Swan Lake’ are on my surgery leg, and still today it’s a struggle. It’s so painful.” But there’s a reason the public didn’t know about her injury, Copeland says: “We’re not MEANT to expose those things. We’re on stage presenting this beautiful, effortless experience for the audience.”
George met Copeland at her 2012 debut in “Firebird,” a huge leap in her career at the time. Backstage afterward, though, Copeland confessed she was in terrible pain, and she had to pull out of later performances. Once she’d had her surgery, George suggested a film that would chronicle her struggle.
“I saw it as this unique window into an artist’s life,” George says, “when they’re coming from a period of great heights, to go down and pick themselves back up.”
They began shooting as Copeland attended one of her first post-surgery ballet classes, clearly nervous and unsteady. The film also includes footage of Copeland’s first post-surgery guest performance, with a small company in Brooklyn. She performed the “Dying Swan” solo, and she’s the first to say she wasn’t at her best.
“It’s so hard to watch!” Copeland says now. “But it was just something I had to do, for my own sanity and confidence. Nelson captured these moments where I knew I wasn’t going to be happy with … and I wasn’t.”
An obvious perfectionist, Copeland also worried about the deal the audience was getting. “Why am I putting people through this?” she says she wondered at the time. “They don’t know that I’ve gone through this surgery, and this may be the first time and the last time they will see me perform.”
The film, which opened in New York last week and goes into wider release on Oct. 23, also touches, not surprisingly, on the obstacles – including loneliness and self-doubt – that Copeland experienced as she rose through the ranks in the heavily white environment of classical dance. She comments early in the film that some people think she focuses too much on her race – on the fact that she is not just a ballerina, but a black ballerina.
“It’s true,” she says now. “It’s brought up to me all the time that I focus too much on that, that art isn’t about that, and you don’t see color in art. But so much of the accomplishment that I have is that I’m a black ballerina. It wouldn’t BE the accomplishment that it is if I were just another girl who happened to have bigger breasts and was made a principal dancer! It’s the fact that I am an African-American woman that makes it a feat.”
Though Copeland is undeniably thrilled to be a principal dancer, there is, she notes, a down side: You dance less, because there are many principals vying for the few starring roles. “It’s kind of a scary thought: in the rest of my career, if that’s 10 years, I may have 20 ‘Swan Lakes’ and that’s it,” she says.
For now, Copeland needs to dance as much as she can, and fit in the rest when possible. Her two-week Broadway run with “On the Town” evoked misery at first – she felt unprepared – and then great enjoyment. George predicts she’ll be back on Broadway soon. Copeland says no, she’s only thinking about ballet – where you can’t cut corners, no matter you who are.
“There’s no, like, I’m gonna go off and be this celebrity and then I’ll come in and do this performance,” she notes. “It just doesn’t work that way. And the company, they could care less if Jay Z wants me to come and perform at his concert! Their focus is putting on the best performers and performances they can.”