Misty Copeland has leaped to the heights of the ballet world to become the first African-American female principal dancer with the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre in New York City.
On Sept. 6, she comes to UNC’s Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill to kick off the Carolina Performing Arts series’ 15th season. This year, the UNC organization says its programming this season will “celebrate the creative leadership of women,” according to press materials.
Copeland will have a conversation with Susan Jaffe, dean of dance at UNC School of the Arts. Jaffe also was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre for 22 years
Copeland will talk about her life and the challenges she has faced. She will not dance.
At age 13, Copeland discovered ballet. At the time, she was living in a motel room with her single mother and her five siblings. Her first dance class was on a basketball court at her local Boys and Girls Club near where she lived in greater Los Angeles.
By age 15, she was on her way.
Copeland talked to The News & Observer in a phone interview about her upcoming appearance in Chapel Hill. Our conversation below has been edited for length.
Q: Why ballet?
A: I don’t really know it was a conscious choice. For whatever reason, I think I was meant to do it, and it clicked immediately. I fell in love with it. I think it was like filling a void I didn’t even know was there.
It’s just been an incredible journey, not something I ever anticipated. To this day with all the experiences and accolades and opportunities, it still is mind-boggling I’m here.
Q: When you began ballet, what captivated you?
A: I think what captivated me was a feeling of power and beauty and control and having a voice. I didn’t have any of that in my life up until that point. I was again extremely shy and really hadn’t found a way to express myself that worked for me.
I felt this comfort in being on stage and being protected, almost. The audience was there observing, but they couldn’t really say anything, and they couldn’t touch me. I was up there in isolation in a beautiful way, expressing myself in movement. That was all new territory for me.
Something about going to ballet class every day, the repetition was very meditative for me. It still is to this day.
Q: What allows you to move forward despite challenges?
A: I think I’ve always been drawn to a challenge. I think if it were easy or if I’d perfected it and was complacent, I wouldn’t be attracted to it anymore.
I think knowing I could impact a young person’s life in the way mine was definitely gives me motivation to be able to have the hope the ballet world can be changed for the better by bringing more diversity to it, which can only enrich this art form, bringing in more communities to be a part of it.
All of that definitely keeps me passionate and going.
Q: What role do you hope your voice plays, both in ballet and our wider culture?
A: Dancers often enter the ballet world, or dance world, because they don’t want to talk, but they do want to have a voice. I think people from the outside often see us as just a body that doesn’t have an opinion or shouldn’t have one, because that’s the way the ballet world is structured. We’re often, even as adults, treated as children with directors and ballet masters and ballet mistresses.
I think it’s important at this point in the world and in the climate we’re in politically for dancers to be respected and treated as other artists are who are looked to for their opinions and for their voice and for their interpretation of what’s happening in the world through their art. Dancers haven’t been given an actual voice to express that.
I wouldn’t have these opportunities if I weren’t a classical dancer and if I weren’t African-American. No matter what space I’m in, whether it be out in the world in New York City or wherever I travel to or in the studio or in the theater, I’m still a brown body. I can’t hide or change the way my physical appearance is. I’m going to be treated accordingly. It’s horrible that that’s the way the world works, but it is. That’s something I deal with every day. So many black and brown people do as well.
I just kind of speak to that and trying to open up this conversation. If we don’t have that dialogue, then nothing will change.
Q: Where do you get your strength from?
A: The amazing people around me. I have just incredible mentors that have come and gone throughout my life.
I definitely think my inner strength is innate in me because of my mother, having watched her single-handedly raise six children in some pretty severe environments and never, ever, having giving up as an option.
I think that’s where I think I get so much of my inner strength and will and drive, as well as having now been part of the ballet world for 25 years. That environment creates such incredible strong persons. It’s a quiet, beautiful inner strength that a lot of people don’t ever experience or possess.
I’m just so thankful to have had all of these obstacles and opportunities that have made me who I am.
What: Misty Copeland in Conversation
Where: Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, UNC campus
When: Sept. 6, 8 p.m.
Price: $27, general admission