Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Misty Copeland

In another life, like countless girls, I spent countless hours dreaming about ballet. I subscribed to Dance Magazine, I sewed ribbons into shoes, and I watched a VHS tape we had of the Kirov's production of Swan Lake dozens of times. I read Gelsey Kirkland's memoir on the beach and cried.

I wasn't very good. But I kept practicing, and I cared about it deeply. I think it was invaluable for my young physical self growing up in a very anti-sports family, and to my love of the arts.  One summer I went to a ballet camp and there was this imposing teacher everyone was scared of. But one day he broke character and had us huddle around and talked about the worthiness of our calling. He did a probably offensive but very funny imitation of a ditzy high school girl and asked if those girls made fun of us for dancing. He told us, just remember, what do they do? Nothing. What do you do? You dance. He made it sound sacred.

When I got to college (a woman's college I'd picked in part because they had a dance program), I realized quickly a lot of budding feminists saw ballet as a very bad thing.  It fetishized little girls, it gave them eating disorders, it was aristocratic, elitist, etc. etc. I could see where they were coming from, but my heart wasn't in it. Later in graduate school when I met the Marxist who would become my advisor, I sheepishly mentioned I had been a dancer once, in another life. "Ah, she said. That's so wonderful! The physical discipline!" That's probably the moment I knew she would be an important figure to me.

Today Misty Copeland was promoted from soloist to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. She is the first African-American woman to reach that rank in that company.

This profile in the New Yorker by Rivka Galchen from a little while back does a good job outlining why this is such a big deal. I've had a lot of conversations over the years defending my love of ballet with especially women who had bad experiences with dance teachers who told them to go on a diet or who just can't get past the whole aristocratic, Court of Louis XIV thing, or the hierarchy that makes "soloist" and "principle" such important categories, or for whom the whole aesthetic is corrupted by its idealization of weightlessness. I get all that. But like my Marxist professor, I think that some of the things bourgeois culture has made are too beautiful to be left to the bourgeoisie, even if when you got to the NYBT these days you have fucking David Koch's name on your ticket.  I'm also the kind of Marxist who has a certain impulse to defend the guild-like qualities of worlds like ballet. (Copeland even points out in that profile how people assume ballet is her hobby, and she reminds them she's in a union.)

The New Yorker piece also does a good job outlining how often throughout history black ballet dancers have come up against the aesthetic prejudices of the art's gatekeepers, looking not only for young dancers with talent or even turnout but who would fit "uniformly" into an ensemble. It tells the stories of dancers like Raven Wilkinson, a dancer with the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Michaela DePrince who have made their careers abroad after come up against these kinds of barriers in the U.S. Shockingly, when the Dance Theater of Harlem was temporarily closed because of financial difficulties (which of course points to a not-minor aspect of the problem), only one of its dancers was offered a job by a major American company. This is a small step in a slow moving world but one that will genuinely move lots of us former bunheads, even those who, unlike Copeland, Wilkinson or DePrince, lacked for talent rather than opportunity.

Relatedly, I've always been more of a NYCB girl, but who wants to go see ABT with me?