Ballet Stars

Beyond Role Models: Straight Talk From Ashley Murphy, Ebony Williams and Misty Copeland

Photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Alicia Graf Mack tells the remarkable stories of three stars who have beaten ballet's odds, finding successful careers in the field they love.

Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Ashley Murphy

As a young girl in Shreveport, Louisiana, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Ashley Murphy never dreamed of a career in ballet. “I didn't grow up hearing that being a professional dancer was a real job," she says. Ballet was just an extracurricular activity that she enjoyed, along with gymnastics and piano lessons.

Not until she attended summer programs at New York's Joffrey Ballet School, The Ailey School and DTH did Murphy begin to realize her own potential. Though she earned admission to Dillard University in Louisiana, she ultimately followed her heart and accepted a spot with DTH's junior company. Within a year, director Arthur Mitchell, noticing her air of quiet mystery, promoted her to the professional company.

Murphy found herself in her dream job. She enjoyed working amongst so many dancers of color, “striving toward this goal" of showing the world that a ballet company celebrating the diversity of American society could advance the art form. This was a place where she could pursue what she loved regardless of the color of her skin. In 2003, DTH experienced a successful touring year, and Ashley performed some of the greatest works of the neoclassical canon, including Balanchine's Serenade and Concerto Barocco, and the company's signature work, John Taras' Firebird.

“Sheer confusion" is how Murphy describes her thoughts after hearing the announcement, in 2004, that DTH was closing. “We were touring and performing to sold-out audiences, and the next week, I didn't have a job," she remembers. Murphy stayed in New York for a few months, auditioning for other ballet companies, but was forced to move back home when nothing worked out. The disappointment of unemployment after reaching such a high in the ballet world wore on her spirit and led her to question the role that race plays in dance. “To a certain extent, race affects us all, whether we are willing to admit it or not," she says.

From 2004 to 2012, Murphy made it her mission to inspire young people of color. She not only danced with the DTH Ensemble—the performing arm of the DTH School, which continued to operate during the company's hiatus—but also worked with DTH's educational outreach program, Dancing Through Barriers. “The biggest thing that we can do is to be an example to others," she says. “Not seeing people who looked like me is one of the reasons I never considered ballet as a profession growing up."

Today, the powerful yet elegant 29-year-old is at the forefront of Dance Theatre of Harlem's comeback as a full-fledged professional company. Murphy often wonders “why it can never just be, 'Oh, she is a beautiful dancer.' It has to be, 'She is a beautiful black dancer.' " Those kinds of assumptions have charged her to strengthen and develop her artistry, so that her talent is undeniable—devoid of labels. Her pursuit of excellence is not about being a standout black ballerina, but about being a standout artist. “That should be the larger issue," she says.

Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Ebony Williams

Ebony Williams has worked with pop stars like Beyoncé and Rihanna, but the chameleonlike dancer's home is Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Cedar Lake's repertoire emphasizes the work of innovative European choreographers, and Williams, whose strong classical technique is complemented by an urban angularity, was drawn to its marriage of classical and contemporary. “I felt like I didn't have to just be a ballerina," she says.

For Williams, the dance world wasn't always a welcoming place. She started her classical training in elementary school through Boston Ballet's Citydance, an outreach program designed to bring dance to inner-city public schools. Soon Boston Ballet recognized Williams' prodigious talent and asked her to join the Boston Ballet School on full scholarship. As one of the only black girls at the school and on financial assistance, Williams often felt estranged.

“Everyone at Boston Ballet, the staff and teachers, was very good to me," she says. “It was really just the parents and the other girls. I remember one girl's mom grabbed me and told me that she was paying for me to be there, and I didn't deserve the roles I was getting. It was horrible." During her freshman year of high school, Williams began to retreat, skipping classes and eventually quitting ballet altogether. “It was no longer fun for me," she says.

Williams joined her high school's cheerleading squad, graduated and enrolled in college to study physical therapy. A former teacher saw her in Boston during a break and asked her why she was no longer dancing. “I felt like no one was letting me quit," Williams says. “Everyone knew me as Ebony the dancer." After a six-year hiatus from formal ballet training, she returned to her greatest passion, enrolling in The Boston Conservatory. “I started in the lowest ballet level, and by the second semester I was in the highest level."

In rediscovering ballet, Williams rediscovered herself, and ultimately found a new path at one of the dance world's most diverse companies. She loves that everyone in Cedar Lake is “from a different place in the world," she says. “It is important to the artistic direction to bring in individuals who have their own voices." Now she embraces the fact that while the color of her skin makes her special, it is her talent that sets her apart.

Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre's first African-American soloist in over two decades, is one of the ballet world's most prominent role models. More than 250,000 fans follow her every move on social media. With a new memoir on sale, a documentary in the making and several commercial endorsements, Copeland is a force to be reckoned with.

But being in the spotlight also has its challenges. Copeland is no stranger to dealing with negative chatter and intense pressure. “As I climb the ranks of the ballet world, I've started to see more judgment from my audiences and peers," she says. “I just have to block it out and stay focused and weed out the negative. I have to be able to stand my ground."

Copeland began training in classical ballet at 13. Discovered by her teacher, Cynthia Bradley, at a Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, California, Copeland was aware that her color could present a challenge, but she trained in a caring, insulated environment that allowed her to flourish as a young artist. Even after moving to New York City in 2000 to dance with ABT's Studio Company, she was not aware of the role that race would play later in her career.

In fact, it was not until Copeland's first year as an ABT corps member that she began to struggle. “In the beginning it was so difficult," she says. As one of the only black female dancers in ABT, she “felt really alone, and started to rebel. I was really hard on myself." She became increasingly frustrated with her casting, believing that her talent merited bigger opportunities.

Copeland attributes her change of attitude and sense of determination to conversations she had with Victoria Rowell, a former ballerina and actress who encouraged her to continue to fight for her place at ABT. Copeland says, “It was the first time that I had a black woman so positive and strong in my dance career. She said, You can do this. And that's what I needed to hear." Copeland found the courage to ask for what she wanted, and her career at ABT took an upward turn.

Today, Copeland is using her position with one of the world's premier ballet companies as a platform for bringing issues of racial inequality to the forefront of the ballet world. In following her own dreams, Copeland is paving the way for other women of color to do the same. “I am constantly saying that, to be a black ballet dancer, you have to be incredibly strong," she says. “I want to show people that it is possible."

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Richmond Ballet dancers in "An Open Later..." by Matthew Frain. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

What's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

The Bolshoi Premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina

Last July Hamburg Ballet presented the world premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina, a modern adaptation on Leo Tolstoy's famous novel. Hamburg Ballet coproduced the full-length ballet with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi, the latter of which will premiere the work March 23 (NBoC will have its premiere in November). The production will feature Bolshoi star Svetlana Zakharova in the title role. This is especially fitting as Neumeier's initial inspiration for the ballet came from Zakharova while they were working together on his Lady of the Camellias. The following video delves into what makes this production stand out.

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Beijing Dance Academy students Pei Yu Meng and Wang Yuzhiwan in rehearsal. Photo Courtesy BDA.

In one of 60 spacious dance studios at the Beijing Dance Academy, Pei Yu Meng practices a tricky step from Jorma Elo's Over Glow. She's standing among other students, but they all work alone, with the help of teachers calling out corrections from the front of the room. On top of her strong classical foundation and clean balletic lines, Pei Yu's slithery coordination and laser-sharp focus give her dancing a polished gleam. Once she's mastered the pirouette she's been struggling with, she repeats the step over and over until the clock reaches 12 pm for lunch. Here, every moment is a chance to approach perfection.

Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA's professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country's communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA's ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students' knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.

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Ballet Stars
Tim Verhallen, via Instagram

Dutch National Ballet Soloist Michaela DePrince has been busy winning over the mainstream media. Since last spring, the First Position star not only landed a spokesmodel deal with Jockey, but she also recently teamed up on a commercial with Chase Bank and just announced that Madonna will be directing her upcoming biopic, Taking Flight (totally casual).

What could possibly be next? The cover of April's Harper's Bazaar Netherlands, it turns out. Posing in an arabesque with her hair slicked back in her usual ballet bun, DePrince traded in her leotard and tights for a stunning metallic Gucci dress (can we do that, too?).

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Ballet Stars
Leanne Benjamin and Luke Heydon in "Coppélia," via YouTube.

Dancing with The Royal Ballet from 1992 until 2013, former principal Leanne Benjamin tackled just about every role in the classical gamut, from Juliet to Nikiya to Giselle. As the young and spirited Swanilda in this clip from Coppélia, Benjamin reveals that she has equal talent for the silly as the serious. Her comedic performance in Swanilda's doll dance is this role at its best.

In an effort to trick the scheming Dr. Coppelius and save her beloved Franz, Swanilda pretends she is the doll Coppélia come to life. As she begins to dance, Benjamin is stiff and mechanical one moment and then flopped over like a rag doll the next. Dr. Coppelius, played by character artist Luke Heydon, watches her enthralled and Benjamin's gaze is fixed in a plastic stare. But when the toymaker looks away, Benjamin's Swanilda breaks doll character and frantically tries to figure out an escape. Feebly, Dr. Coppelius tries to keep up with her. Although we feel some sympathy for the delusional old toymaker, we can't help laughing at Swanilda's antics. And that slap at 1:55? Gets us every time. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

New York City Ballet's shoe room. Photo by Tess Mayer.

Deep in the basement of Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater is a small, windowless space that's home to nearly 6,000 pairs of pointe shoes, neatly stacked on shelves that reach to the ceiling. It's New York City Ballet's shoe room, and for company members, it's one of the most important places in the world. Dancers frequently stop by to search for the ideal pair for a special performance, or to tweak their custom pointe shoe orders, trying to get that elusive perfect fit. "If the shoe isn't right, the dancer can't do her job," says shoe room supervisor and former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Linnette Roe. We talked to Roe and NYCB soloist Emilie Gerrity about some of the most interesting—and surprising—secrets of the shoe room.

The NYCB dancers go through 9,000 to 11,000 pairs of shoes each year, including flat shoes, sneakers, jazz shoes, and character shoes. The company has an annual shoe budget of about $780,000.

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Younji-Grace Choi at the 2014 USA IBC. Choi is now a dancer with Cincinnati Ballet and will return to the USA IBC as a senior competitor this summer. Photo by Richard Finkelstein, Courtesy USA IBC.

Exciting news today: the USA International Ballet Competition has just announced its list of invited competitors for the summer 2018 competition. The USA IBC has invited 119 dancers from 19 countries out of over 300 applicants to compete in Jackson, MS June 10-23.

Since the last USA IBC in 2014 the competition has expanded its age limits; the junior category now allows dancers ages 14-18 and the senior category dancers ages 19-28. Of the 119 competitors this year, 53 are juniors and 66 are seniors. The United States has the highest number of competitors invited (52), followed by Japan (23) and South Korea (14). The other countries represented are Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

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Les Grabds Ballets dancer Mai Kono in a promotional phtoo for next season's production of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Photo by Sasha Onyschenko, Courtesy Les Grands Ballets.

The latest front in the controversy over the underrepresentation of female choreographers in ballet is at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. They're facing a petition and choreographer resignation that forced them to rebrand a season and publicly defend their programming.

On February 26, artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who started the job in the summer of 2017, announced the 2018-2019 season, which included a program titled Femmes. The program announcement said the evening would have "woman as its theme," and that Cavallari had "chosen three distinctive voices, rising stars of choreography, to undertake this great subject."

The three voices Cavallari chose to create on the theme of women, however, were all men.

"This was just too much for me, it was the last straw," says Kathleen Rea, a former member of National Ballet of Canada who now freelances, choreographs and teaches in Toronto. Rea says she's been bothered by the dearth of women choreographers throughout her career. But referring to women as "subjects" and excluding them from choreographing on a program about them compelled her to take action.

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