American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland is not the first African American woman to dance the iconic role of Odette/Odile. And some warn, rightly so, that the rich history of black ballerinas (Lauren Anderson, Debra Austin, Anne Benna Sims, Nora Kimball and Virginia Johnson, to name just a few) has gotten lost in all the publicity hype surrounding Copeland. Others complain that her PR campaign is an overly aggressive attempt to achieve principal status. But in her New York debut as Odette/Odile on Wednesday afternoon, it was clear that something special and extremely important was happening at the Metropolitan Opera House.
For one thing, it was essentially a sold out performance—which is pretty unheard of for a Wednesday matinee, when most people are at work. (I know of two individuals who flew in from out of town, just to see her dance.) And the audience was refreshingly diverse. “We’re here to support our sister,” one woman proclaimed outside the theater, triumphantly punching the air. I saw young, aspiring ballerinas—hair upswept in buns, turned-out feet, erect spines—playing hooky from ballet class to see their role model perform, as well as every dance critic in the business. The energy in the house was frenetic. With such a huge crowd and high expectations, Copeland was under enormous pressure to deliver.
Luckily, she did. Copeland’s Odette was supple, vulnerable and musically sensitive, her expressive port de bras especially resonant. As Odile, she was strong and commanding, although she struggled during the fouettés, finishing with pirouettes from fifth. Some may judge her harshly for this, but I’ve seen lots of dancers falter in their fouettés—and they didn’t have the whole dance world watching. Beyond this blip, Copeland was composed, secure and solidly focused throughout, and proved that she has the aplomb and charisma to carry a full-length ballet (last week she also debuted as Juliet).
The dramatic ovation at the ballet’s conclusion spoke volumes as to what Copeland’s performance as Odette/Odile meant to her fans and to the African American community. The theater went absolutely wild. In a touching moment, former Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson and Copeland’s mentor, former Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo ballerina Raven Wilkinson, stepped onstage to deliver bouquets of flowers. Whether one feels comfortable with it or not, Copeland’s popularity is legitimate and undeniable—for many people, black and white, she is an inspiration, a hero and a star. Will she become the first female African American principal at ABT? That is the million-dollar question her fans are anxiously waiting to be answered.