tour de force

 Words: Carrie Battan

Photography: Henry Leutwyler

The extravagance and elegance of any large-scale classical ballet performance is matched only by the modesty of the conditions under which it is rehearsed. When I showed up at the American Ballet Theatre—one of the world’s most prominent classical ballet companies—one afternoon in March, I felt like I had ridden the building’s rickety elevator up to an earlier era (a pre-Giuliani New York, aesthetically speaking). The reception area was pleasantly dingy, adorned only by old posters; its utilitarian furniture was nicked and unpretentious. I saw zero cell phones. Down the hall, the door to one of the large rehearsal rooms was propped open for ventilation purposes—a group of teenage boys had just wrapped up practice and left a humid trail of post-pubescent musk behind them. Overhearing the chatter of teen-boy dancers, dressed in feminizing balletwear, is disorienting, like seeing an octogenarian driving a new Porsche: “I’ve gotta go ice my ankle,” one said, pointing down at his spandex. “That shit is killing me today, bro.”

I was ushered down a hallway and into a practice space to wait. There was not much to see: a large, fluorescently lit room lined with mirrors and a couple of air-conditioning units lodged precariously into the windows, an upright piano, a few free-standing barres. I muttered aloud that the place seemed untouched by… “Time,” the ABT representative said. I had been thinking “screens,” but time was more to the point. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Most of the dances being rehearsed here originated centuries ago, and their choreographies remain untouched. Why should a rehearsal space be concerned with modernity?

misty-story1If there is any force pulling classical ballet into the present, it’s 33-year-old Misty Copeland, who, in June 2015, was named one of ABT’s principal dancers. She is the first black principal in the history of the company, and the only classical ballerina—or any dancer—of our era to achieve mainstream celebrity and household-name status. Just a week before I watched her rehearse at ABT, she’d sat across from President Obama for TIME magazine, engaging in a serene discussion about the nature of race and success in America. Like Obama, Copeland straddles shifting cultural faultlines at a time when America is trying, and struggling, to remap its value system.

“Being the only African-American in almost every environment in terms of classical ballet… it wears on you after a while,” Copeland explained to Obama. “[But I’m also] trying not to get too weighed down with being black, and just trying to be the best person and the best dancer I can be.” Throughout her rise to prominence, Copeland has been forced to untangle layers of cultural knots she didn’t create. She’s had to navigate a business and an art form that traditionally made no space for her—and today, she has to deal with all of the weight that comes along with being the first to shatter those traditions.

At ABT the week after her Obama interview, Copeland was in her natural habitat. As she entered the modest space and prepared for rehearsal, there was nothing that pointed to her rarefied status as a cultural icon. There was no commotion, beyond a hushed request for an inscription from the ABT representative, who wanted to gift Copeland’s memoir, Life in Motion, to her sister. Copeland has a gentle, cheerful air, and a playful rapport with the pianist. When she saw her rehearsal partner that day, Jeffrey Cirio, she leapt to embrace him like a close friend she hadn’t seen in years.




Ballerinas appear much smaller in person than in their elongated physical states onstage. Beyond being the first black principal in ABT, Copeland has been recognized for a body that is atypical in the ballet world: thick, strong legs, broad shoulders, large chest. For whatever reason, I assumed these were overblown characterizations— the way the modeling business deems anyone over a size 4 “plus size.” I figured that in person, Copeland would look like a typical ballerina. But when she strode into the rehearsal space, wearing a fitted red halter top, a giant pink tutu, and pale tights, I was in awe of her pronounced physical strength. At 5’2”, she is predictably much shorter than she looks in performance, but she is a powerhouse. She is extraordinarily lean, but she has heft and shape. She looks like she could hold her own in the boxing ring. Ballet is either the most performance-centric of all athletics or the most athletic of all performance arts, and Copeland is an athlete above all.

At ABT, routines are rehearsed in 30-minute or one-hour blocks from noon until 7pm. On this particular day, Copeland was here for a last-minute rehearsal of a scene from Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky’s 1890 masterpiece. Copeland plays Princess Florine, a small but dazzling role in the third act. In the ballet version of Sleeping Beauty, Princess Aurora marries her prince in front of a collection of characters from fairy tales—Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, the White Cat, Princess Florine, and her male partner, the Bluebird. Copeland has danced this part many times, but leading up to the Detroit run, she was slotted in for an extra night of Florine at the last minute when one of the other female principals was injured. This meant she would be doing the pas de deux with Cirio for the first time. This intimate rehearsal— just Copeland, Cirio, and their coach—was about acclimating to a new partner, a whole new human body.

misty-story4We tend to imagine ballet rehearsals as tranquil and rote, but in reality they can function like messy workshops, filled with collaboration and decision-making, not to mention the sounds of physical brutality: bodies pounding as they land on the floor, heaving breaths of exhaustion, the pronounced clicking of hoof-like pointe shoes. Rehearsing for the first time with Cirio, Copeland started with a casual walkthrough of the routine. In the scene, Princess Florine and the Bluebird engage in a playful back-and-forth for a period, after which they meet in the middle for a complicated synchronized dance. Princess Florine becomes almost inanimately stiff, and the Bluebird spins her in her delicately frozen state. At the end, they dash offstage as if they are flying, one behind the other.

As the two dancers moved through the sequences, Copeland often dissolved into quiet, grimaced laughter when she felt something wasn’t right. “I feel like my bone is, like, in your rib,” she told Cirio. “I’m not sure what to do with my arm.” Copeland almost seemed sheepish, like a teen at a middle school dance. They began a sequence over again. The moves still felt a little funny to Copeland, and she began apologizing as she danced alongside Cirio. “It gets worse and worse each time!” she said, exasperated but not defeated. “I feel like I just need to get out of the way.” Her coach gently reassured her: “It’s always a little awkward.” They labored over where Florine and Bluebird are meant to meet in the middle of the stage, facing one another. “That’s so awkward! I never know what to do,” Copeland said. “Should I put my hands in his hands?” Throughout the process, Copeland treated the routine like something that was being carefully molded and buffed by multiple different hands. She took input from everyone in the room.

A few moments later, there was a discussion of how Copeland’s hands should be placed during a moment of repose. They were clasped, and she had the option to push her palms out toward the floor or keep them facing up toward her. There was another discussion of exactly how Copeland should place her heel during a retiré, a move where the dancer lifts one thigh and rests the foot on the opposite knee, a bit like a flamingo or a yogi in tree pose. “Heel forward, heel forward,” Copeland repeated to herself—although it was impossible to understand how anyone could concentrate on rotating the heel an infinitesimal amount forward while holding all of the other body parts in their precise positions. Each delegation of this nature seemed a display of the narcissism of small differences, but these small differences are what distinguishes a production. misty-story3

Twenty-five minutes went by like a few seconds; by the time Copeland and Cirio had worked their way through the routine a few times, their chance to rehearse had nearly passed. They moved along to the coda—the finale of the pas de deux, which involves a series of grand leaps across the floor and off the stage. The group milled around for a moment, and when nobody was really paying attention, Copeland sprung to life and leapt across the floor in a flash. It was like watching a pterodactyl wake from rest and take flight in a split second. Without the inhibiting force of a partner—a second body, with all of its quirks and unfamiliarities—Copeland’s sheer explosiveness came to light. Her wingspan and the height of her vertical jump took my breath away. Ballet is a sport in which athleticism and grace are often at odds with one another, even when they are both necessary. Here, leaping through the air in an unrehearsed moment, Copeland was able to channel her own athleticism and use it to power her grace.

Before they finished, the pair returned to an earlier sequence. Copeland was struggling to keep precise balance after landing in repose after a few moves. “Some people adjust one leg for more stability,” her coach suggested. She complied. “I need as much help as I can get,” she said, and laughed again. Here was Copeland, the most celebrated ballerina of our time, rehearsing a ballet that has been performed on stages across the world for nearly a century and a half. Copeland herself has performed it countless times. And yet she was still hammering out the small details. No matter how established any ballet is, each ballerina must tailor her performance to the strengths and limitations of her own physicality. The dances will forever remain frozen in the past. It’s the individual human bodies—their strengths and their limitations, their sizes and shapes and colors—that are responsible for moving ballet into the future.