By Karyn D. Collins
The much anticipated announcement of Misty Copeland’s promotion to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre last week was heralded with an abundance of media fanfare – a breaking news banner across the homepage of The New York Times, coverage on the major television news networks, and a hastily arranged, widely viewed press conference. But the actual press release from American Ballet Theatre was routine. Arriving as expected at the end of the season, it presented company promotions in the order of position and alphabetically, meaning that Copeland’s name was second, behind fellow new principal Stella Abrera. There was no mention of Copeland’s place in history as the first African-American principal ballerina at the company.
Although, news and social media covered Copeland’s ground-breaking status extensively. If that move by ABT raised a few eyebrows in some media circles, it was in keeping with what has historically been the company’s approach in the past and what ABT says will be its approach with Copeland in the future.
Indeed, when asked to comment about the marketing plans for publicizing Copeland, company spokesperson Kelly Ryan said in an emailed statement, “We have no comment on this other than to say there is no strategy for any one dancer. We have a company of 90 talented dancers that are included in our marketing and promotion in conjunction with the works that we produce each season, i.e. premieres, revivals, returning repertory and the occasional special event.” Dance Magazine editor Jennifer Stahl said the situation for ABT is unique and complex. While Copeland has become a pop culture darling, and an inspirational figure to the African American community and dance lovers, especially youngsters, in general, she is part of a big company that has always had a roster full of superstars.
“Obviously, [Copeland] sold out the Metropolitan Opera House on a Wednesday afternoon because of the history of the moment. So, if I were them, I would take advantage of that,” Stahl said. “But I think they’re also under pressure [from those inside and outside the company] that she be promoted for the dancing, not anything else.” Stahl recounted a conversation she’d had earlier this summer with a casual dance observer who had assumed Copeland’s popularity was just about her being a symbol or token for the ballet world. “I told that person ‘no.’ Misty’s done very well in the roles she’s been given,” Stahl said, ticking off the list of Copeland’s growing repertoire including Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, the Cowgirl in Rodeo, and Swanilda in Coppelia. “I think ABT is just treading the line and trying to be careful to not present her as a symbol, but to present her as just one of their dancers.”
Lauren Anderson, the former star with Houston Ballet, who made history in 1990 as the first black female principal of a major U.S. company, agreed. “This is how it should be: you’re just one more person on the press release,” Anderson said. “If we want equality, it’s got to be that way. It’s got to be the same as everyone else.” Anderson added, “We want equality. We want the same opportunities. We want it the same way that it’s done for everyone else. And I totally understand ABT’s approach. It’s a company.”
ABT’s approach is also fine with Copeland, says the dancer’s manager, Gilda Squire, whose work has been responsible for raising Copeland’s visibility in recent years. “I know people now see Misty in the celebrity sphere, but that has not ever been her intention. Misty has never wanted the attention just to be on her,” Squire said. Squire pointed out that, in her press conference, Copeland told the assembled reporters that whether she’s onstage, featured in a magazine or in a television interview, “It’s not about me. I’m just a voice trying to get people to come to this art form.”
Arts consultant Brett Egan, president of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, said there’s a fine line in determining the right balance in a case like this. While Copeland has proven to be a major force in the ballet world and will certainly serve as an inspiration to fans as well as within ABT, he said the emphasis should remain on Copeland’s talent and artistry. “First and foremost, Miss Copeland is an extraordinary dancer and any marketing should first look at the performance and look at the skill,” he said. Egan noted that Copeland had done a good job at striking a balance between focusing on the dance and, when appropriate, sharing her personal story, including her struggles. “I think it’s wise for the institution to continue to follow Miss Copeland’s own instincts with this,” he added. “I think she’s been really expert at this balance, from what I’ve been able to ascertain from the outside.”
But one prominent expert on diversity and the arts said ABT may be missing an important opportunity in its insistence not to highlight Copeland’s historical significance. “I haven’t seen a tremendous amount of marketing of her by the company, and I certainly haven’t seen marketing that’s targeting African American media. I think it’s an opportunity they shouldn’t miss,” said Donna Walker-Kuhne, a noted Brooklyn, N.Y.-based arts consultant on diversity issues in the arts. In addition to a client roster that has included consulting for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Broadway productions like Stick/Fly and Thurgood, starring Laurence Fishburne, Walker-Kuhne currently serves as vice president for community engagement for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
“It seems like there’s an effort [at ABT] to make her so generic and just a ballerina, without engaging in the historical significance and excitement her performances have created, not just in the dance world, but outside of it,” she said. “I think this is an opportunity. Misty can be utilized as a spokesperson to engage more audiences of color. She can host some evenings. She can be used to bring in donors, as well as audiences and students.
“People flock to her performances, so why not maximize this opportunity? This is a great opportunity for ABT to reach new audiences through things like the cover of Essence, Ebony -- key media where black women in particular are looking for affirmation and positive news.”
Those who agree with Walker-Kuhne point to the marketing campaign by The Washington Ballet when earlier this year Copeland starred with the company’s Brooklyn Mack in the company’s first production of Swan Lake. The campaign highlighted a history-making moment: two African American dancers leading the production as Odette/Odile and Siegfried. The company sold posters and t-shirts of depicting the partners as Odette and Siegfried; the company also sold materials promoting the other dancers starring in the production. Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre said the marketing strategy was not an accident.
“I invited Misty to dance Swan Lake with us because I knew she’d bring something quite special to the role. I also appreciated the historical significance of having Misty dance with Brooklyn Mack,” Webre said in an e-mailed statement. “It remains shocking to me that, 50 years after [the Supreme Court decision ruling against segregated schools] Brown v. Board of Education, no major [American] ballet company had presented two African Americans together in the leading roles in [a full production of] Swan Lake.
“It seemed time to break this glass ceiling. And once we decided to program Misty and Brooklyn together, it seemed important to ensure that we spotlight this important issue, so our marketing certainly highlighted this historic moment. However, we had four couples dancing Odette/Odile and Siegfried, so we marketed all of the couples.”
Webre said the company saw positive results from its marketing push. In addition to high ticket sales for the run -- the Copeland/Mack performances sold out months in advance -- Webre said the company also saw other benefits. “It also helped grow the reputation of The Washington Ballet in D.C., and nationally, helped consolidate our community initiatives, and sparked interest in The Washington Ballet among dancers nationally,” he said. “A year ago our New York audition had about 150 attendees. This year 250 dancers auditioned for The Washington Ballet in NYC alone.”
Webre, who said diversity has been an issue he’s been working on since he took the helm of Washington Ballet 15 years ago, said that next season five of the company’s 25 dancers would be African American, including longtime Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerina Ashley Murphy. Another five are Latino and three are Asian. “We believe we are the most diverse of our nation’s major ballet companies,” Webre said. “I think Misty’s status … absolutely provides a role model for young dancers of color who may wish to enter the field. Without marketing, young dancers in cities and towns around the country don’t know about Misty and thus she cannot be a role model. Marketing is part of the process of moving forward,” he added.
But a guest appearance with one company is a far different situation than being a regular presence in a large company filled with a roster of superstars. And, while there was disagreement about how much marketing ABT should do to promote Copeland’s landmark status, there was general agreement from those interviewed for this story that it was unfair and unrealistic to expect Copeland to be “the one” to diversify ballet.
“I would hate for the entire burden for the diversity problem to rest on the shoulders of one dancer,” said Phil Chan, co-founder of a new website museumofblacksinballet.org and executive editor of Flatt magazine. “I don’t think that’s Misty’s intention. I don’t think that’s her message and I don’t think that’s the solution.” But Chan said it’s important to consider and discuss Copeland’s achievement in the context of the intense racial discourse taking place in our society today.
Anderson, who now works doing outreach for the Houston Ballet, reiterated Chan’s point about Copeland’s limitations as the sole role model for diversifying ballet. “She’s one person. You can’t look at her as being the one to change everything,” Anderson said. “And the good thing is she’s not the only one. We have more dancers [of color] in different companies.” She continued: “Because changing things can’t just be done in one spot. It can’t just be her in New York. It can’t just be laid on one person. It’s not all her responsibility.”
Squire, the manager, said that Copeland’s primary goal all along has been to bring more people to ballet. “When I saw all these kids so excited at the Metropolitan Opera House about being there, running to their seats … to see that level of excitement was very encouraging and very promising,” Squire said. “But do I think Misty on her own can change ballet? No. And she shouldn’t be expected to.”
“With all that’s been done, with her being elevated to principal, with a lot of people now being introduced to the idea of going to a ballet, my hope is they start to tell their friends, and those friends tell their friends, and the word spreads,” Squire added. “I’m hoping the seed has been planted and they will come, not just to see her, but to see other performances and other dancers.”
Egan of the DeVos arts management institute also agreed that it was unrealistic to expect Copeland’s promotion, no matter how expertly or extensively marketed, to be the answer to ballet’s long-standing diversity problem. “First, content is king in terms of engaging different kinds of audiences. If we’re not producing work that is relevant to an audience and their experience, it won’t matter who’s on stage,” Egan said. “They won’t come on a long term basis.” He added: “While I have a huge appreciation for Miss Copeland and it’s an immensely important thing that ABT has done, and obviously Miss Copeland deserves a huge amount of respect, if we’re talking about developing audiences for ballet, I think we need to look at a long-term approach to what the content is, not just the people or personalities who can attract new audiences.”
Egan said beyond programming, another key issue in the discussion about developing new audiences, has to be building repertory over months and years that makes a “consistent overture” to a more diverse audience. “It’s not about doing one program every once in a while or featuring one dancer,” he said. It’s about making a decision that diversity is an institutional priority and threading that through the programming of an institution on a regular basis. “That’s a multi-year, or decades-long effort,” Egan acknowledged, “not a project-based or one person approach.”
Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for more than 30 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, the Camden Courier-Post, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, Life and Beauty Weekly Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, and Bloomfield College in N.J., and a faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque and Mahwah, N.J. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.
Photo: Misty Copeland as Odette in Swan Lake,
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