Pearl of great price

A rare gem has recently been retrieved. The black pearl, a hundred times rarer than white pearls, is one of the rarest gems on earth.

The discovery was made by the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) company.

Fewer people follow the ballet as do the football. And that is fine. But to have an eye for the precious and prized, no matter what field the endeavour, is only good form.

In ballet circles Misty Copeland is the only African-American woman promoted to soloist in over two decades. She performed her first full lead for the ABT in Stravinsky’s The Firebird. That was in 2012. Yesterday evening’s performance as Odette/Odile (which to ballet is what Hamlet is to the Thespian) at the Metropolitan Opera House had stalls abuzz that she is set to become the ABT’s first black female principal. Were she to do so she would not only be that first but she would also have achieved her lifelong ambition.

Last September, RivkaGalchen’s article about the 32-year old Copeland appeared at the The New Yorker. It invoked the names of Raven Wilkinson, Sylvester Campbell, George Balanchine, Josephine Baker, Virginia Johnson, and Michaela DePrince.

Lauren Anderson was another that was mentioned. Anderson was the first African-American woman to reach the rank of principal ballerina with a major American company other than Dance Theatre Harlem. Ms Anderson knows about dance and she knows about black: “When we think of ballerinas, we think of pink and pale and fluffy. We’re not accustomed to thinking of black women’s bodies in that context. We’re accustomed to thinking of black women as athletic and strong. But all ballerinas are athletic, all ballerinas are strong.”

“I know that I was born to do this.” Misty Copeland débuts in ‘Swan Lake’ at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, Australia. September 3, 2014. [CBS News]

Galchen reveals a black dancer who has grappled with the oft-asked question of ballet — “Isn’t it really about class, not race?” In many cultures, Copeland admits, dancers come from all social classes. “But I think there is more to it than that. I can see now how I was so well supported, even in my low times, but I don’t know if I ever felt like I belonged.”

Ballet is perhaps the ultimate form of multidimensional — spatial and temporal — expression of the self. The demands on the professional dancer, the prized ballerina, are very different but no less rigorous than that of the professional footballer.

Marjorie Liebert, the retired dancer, had brought back with her from Paris the techniques of barre-à-terre, the classical ballet precursor to Pilates. This helped Copeland physically manage the stress fractures and hyper-extension strains. Liebert may have assuaged Copeland more than just physically. It is only the sureness of a voice of lived authority that could proclaim what may well have become the art’s maxim: “We dance who we are.

Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in “Swan Lake” at the Metropolitan Opera House, June 24, 2015. From “Cheers, bouquets for Misty Copeland at her ‘Swan Lake’ debut“, Yahoo News. [Originally from American Ballet Theater, (Gene Schiavone/American Ballet Theater via AP)]

Misty Copeland was a sinewy, spindly, lass of delayed menarche from which she was to emerge, overnight, physically larger. And she came to that belated and obtrusive metamorphosis from an equally late start in dance.

Kevin McKenzie, the ABT’s artistic director, shares with Galchen that “She [Copeland] learned so much from her periods off. Even though she had this late start and meteoric rise, in the end her training was as long as anyone’s. She had gone through puberty and had a different body, And then she excelled again. She had a heinous injury; she came back better—more mature, more analytical.”

The human form has developed and evolved wonderful means of expression, all of which belie the grit and grimace behind their epiphany. For many admirers and novices alike, the only ballet they may come to practice is Liebert’s barre-à-terre. And that too is fine.

As with most successes, so too Miss Copeland’s. Bravo. Ever more so for an ebony pearl in the world of American ballet.

—♦—

An Unlikely Ballerina, by Rivka Galchen, can be read in full at The New Yorker

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