She danced with paramour Prince at splashy concerts in Europe and America. She performed some of the most iconic roles in ballet — from Giselle to Juliet to Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” That last showstopper was the inspiration for her very own Barbie doll, released in 2016.
With grit, gumption and grace, Misty Copeland, 36, has become the face of American ballet, an unexpected but exhilarating achievement for a black kid who found ballet at age 13. Now she’s traveling the country evangelizing for the art form she loves. And she’s encouraging young people, especially, to use setback and pitfalls as inspiration and steppingstones.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised by a single mother in Los Angeles, Copeland jets to Minnesota next Sunday for an inspirational conversation at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop auditorium in Minneapolis. The pioneering prima ballerina, who became the first black female principal dancer at New York City’s prestigious American Ballet Theatre in 2015, spoke to the Star Tribune by phone last week. The conversation has been lightly edited.
Q: Sometimes young people, not just dancers, are told they shouldn’t try something because it’s not for them. Based on your life, what do you tell them?
A: I’m trying to break the perception and mold of how ballet is viewed. Dancers come in all shapes and sizes and colors. It’s about the performance you bring and how you make people feel. Many dancers have approached different roles in the past. It’s not about replicating what they do or walking their path. I feel like I’m a prime example of that.
I try and tell young people to embrace their differences, which is so hard in this day and age with social media. It’s about embracing who we are as individuals, because that’s so much more beautiful and interesting than trying to replicate what’s already out there.
Q: And you seem to use discouragement as fuel to further your dreams.
A: That’s how I look at all negative commentary. When you’re entering into an art form that’s subjective, that’s the mind-set you need to have. You’re not going to please everyone or be everyone’s cup of tea. But you can’t get caught up in that. You have the power to not let everyone’s words define you.
Q: Is it fair to call you a ballet evangelist?
A: I have so much pride and love and respect for the traditions and history of ballet. Within classical ballet, the lineage is something that has been passed down and inherited. I love everything about that. At the same time, there are so many things that need to be shifted and changed.
I believe it’s possible to hold on to the history and tradition but also to evolve, especially in America. It’s possible to create our own version of what this European art form was when it started.
Q: Which reminds me, social media is rife with images of hip-hop ballerinas.
A: The fact that those movements are happening is proof that ballet is relevant in all these different cultures. I grew up with hip-hop and R&B — that plays into how I interpret the work. It’s a beautiful thing to bring yourself to ballet.
Q: What was it like to perform with Prince?
A: It’s interesting. I met him in a way where I had never seen him perform and I wasn’t that familiar with his music. I knew the hits — the things on MTV and VH1 — but he wasn’t an artist me and my mom played around the house.
So I got to know him as a human being and as a friend. And actually, I didn’t see him perform onstage for almost a year into our friendship. So that was fascinating, to get to know him as a person, and then all of a sudden you’re thrust onto the stage with him and you’re like, “Oh, I get it.” He’s a magical genius.
Every single time I stepped onstage with him it was like a different dream that helped me to grow as an artist and as an individual. And it helped me to bring ballet to the masses. Now there are new ballet fans because of those performances.
Q: Take me back to the little girl dreaming of what you wanted to be.
A: As a young girl, being the fourth of six children raised by a single parent, I had no dreams. I was just in constant survival mode in the chaotic environment I was raised in.
Until I had ballet in my life, there wasn’t anything that I was passionate about or had as a big goal. But once I knew of ballet, my Number 1 goal was to be part of American Ballet Theatre. Now everything has gone beyond my expectations of what I thought was possible for my life.
Q: You have performed some of the most iconic roles in ballet. Are there mountains for you still to climb?
A: We have our big ABT season coming in the spring. It’s exciting to take on more dramatic and theatrical roles. I’m approaching the role of Manon [from Jules Massenet’s “L’histoire de Manon”]. In a new ballet, I’ll be playing Jane Eyre. I’ll be revisiting “Swan Lake.”
Q: What can Minnesota audiences expect from you next Sunday?
A: I’m going to share my real and raw experiences and also my love of this beautiful art form. And it’s exciting to be back in Minnesota, to maybe talk a little about Prince and go to Paisley Park.