Misty Copeland’s swan queen takes wing at Kennedy Center

April 10, 2015
The Washington Post

The first time Misty Copeland leapt onto the stage Thursday in the Washington Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake,” you would have thought she had just whacked a grand slam across the Potomac. The Eisenhower Theater crowd roared its enthusiasm in a way I’ve never heard at the Kennedy Center for a ballet dancer.

But Copeland possesses unusual fame. She’s a cultural icon; millions of television viewers recognize her as the Under Armour girl, thanks to an ad campaign that zeroes in on her stunning, well-muscled thighs and calves. As an African American soloist with American Ballet Theatre, Copeland has raised awareness about the lack of diversity in ballet, and her story of success in this most difficult, selective and conservative profession has struck a universal chord.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is the author of THE ART OF GRACE: On Moving Well Through Life, coming in Nov. 2015. She has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996, and after logging time in opera houses, black boxes, and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.

When she landed that leap as the swan queen Odette, however, the crowd noise soon died down, the static surrounding her celebrity status clicked off and all you saw was an artist revealing her expressive qualities. Copeland’s arms, especially, are magnificent — winglike and seemingly boneless. The arms are so important in this ballet about avian imagery and thwarted flight, and Copeland used them beautifully to underscore the complicated vulnerability of her character. With her floating arms and supple shoulders, her tapered, deeply arched feet and her legs of steel, Copeland’s Odette was soft at the extremes, yet underpinned by remarkable strength.

Copeland is new to “Swan Lake,” as is the rest of the Washington Ballet. She is performing as a guest artist in the company’s first essay of the full-length ballet. (She dances again Sunday evening, but that performance is sold out.) Appearing here allows her a little more time to develop the dual role of faithful Odette and her doppelganger, the vicious Odile, before she dances it in June during ABT’s Metropolitan Opera House season in New York.

While her opening-night foray was impressive in many respects, Copeland’s Odette/Odile is still very much a work in progress, as you would expect of a newcomer to the role. She has technical challenges yet to master — controlling her whipping fouette turns and, most important, slowing down and lagging the music, developing her own phrasing. Yet how fascinating it was to witness her quiet, meticulous care. Copeland’s pointe work was clear and artfully shaped, her balances precise and sustained. Nothing was smudged. With equal facility Copeland can expand at full wing or take sharp little bites with those stiletto feet.

If there was an air of nervous tension about her, it felt artistically appropriate to the role of a captive spirit. Only on a few small occasions, during her turns, for instance, did her concentration come through too much.

Copeland’s Odette is warmly human and sympathetic, but her Odile, the Black Swan who leads the prince into betrayal, needs more dramatic drive. The distinction between the two roles lies more in rhythm and emphasis — with a sharper stab to her steps as Odile — than in emotional power.

I believe Copeland will make a bigger mark in other ballets. I’d like to see her as the smart, fearless star of “Don Quixote,” “Coppelia” or “La Fille Mal Gardeé,” and in anything by Alexei Ratmansky or Christopher Wheeldon — in other words, in ballets that demand vitality and personality. Just a few weeks ago, her star quality in a demisoloist role in ABT’s performance of Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” lit up the stage. In the right roles, Copeland can undoubtedly project a commanding and electrifying presence, whereas finding the subtleties of “Swan Lake” is likely to be a gradual, internal process, requiring time and patient coaching more than anything.

Months ago, news of Copeland’s casting in this “Swan Lake” prompted a run on the box office. Why is she dancing in only two performances out of a possible seven? Ballerinas never dance an entire run of shows. Like baseball pitchers, they can’t undertake back-to-back performances. They need rest days, particularly in such a physically demanding role as Odette/Odile, leading the cast of a three-hour production. And the Washington Ballet has other ballerinas it wants to put in the spotlight. Patrons expecting to see Copeland and disappointed that they will not may well find that this handsome production, choreographed by Kirk Peterson, with luxurious scenery and costumes on loan from Ballet West, is worthy for more than Copeland’s debut.

On Thursday, Prince Siegfried proved to be a transformative role for Brooklyn Mack, who commanded the stage with an air at once grand and approachable, and he possessed a relaxed, easy manner throughout the evening. The whole company, augmented by the Studio Company and trainees, rose to the occasion. Jonathan Jordan, as the prince’s friend Benno, led a sparkling pas de trois with Maki Onuki and Tamako Miyazaki.

Peterson’s sensitive coaching was evident throughout. You sensed it in such subtleties as the shy modesty with which the young women sought the attentions of Siegfried at his birthday party in Act I. This production had a unusually seamless dramatic unity.

At first, the Evermay Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nabil Shehata, sounded thin, and I wondered whether they could do justice to the Tchaikovsky score. But the sound soon grew bolder and brighter; what a delight to have such vibrant live music for this production. As a bonus, concert master Tamaki Kawakubo came to the stage just before Act III to play a nimble, singing rendition of the “Danse Russe,” which Tchaikovsky wrote as one of the national dances for that act but which Peterson omitted from his version. It was a classy addition to a sophisticated evening, marking a resounding artistic high point for the Washington Ballet.