Misty Copeland is betting the odds in more ways than one. She is anything but typical. Copeland is a Black woman with an athletic physique in ballet that has survived an almost career-ending injury to become the first African American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theater. She is everything a ballerina “shouldn’t“ be, but defies all stereotypes continuing the work started by her mentor, Raven Wilkinson. Copeland told the Los Angeles Times that her children’s book titled The Firebird, about a young girl who finds the confidence to succeed with Copeland’s help was inspired by her mentor-mentee relationship with Wilkinson.
Wilkinson and Copeland are kindred spirits. Each of them knows what it’s like to be the “only one” in their perspective dance companies. In 1955, Wilkinson was the first African American woman to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of New York City. Wilkinson endured endless racism during her time with the company. In the Black Ballerina trailer, Wilkinson speaks about being told she’d gone as far as she could go in the company. She’d even been told “they” couldn’t have a “Black” White Swan.
In her 2014 interview with Pointe Magazine, Wilkinson questioned, “When are we going to get a Swan Queen of a darker hue? How long can we deny people that position? Do we feel aesthetically we can’t face it?” She was certain it wouldn’t take another 60 years to happen but had no idea when.
All of those questions have been answered by the work of Misty Copeland, and Wilkinson couldn’t be more proud of her Swan Queen. At this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City, Wilkinson and Copeland sat side by side to discuss the documentary titled A Ballerina’s Tale as well as what Copeland’s accomplishments mean to ballerinas and girls everywhere. When asked about how she felt when she heard Copeland was named principal dancer, Wilkinson stated, “ I felt numb and joyful. I did feel, and I didn’t feel. It was not a surprise. I knew!”
Wilkinson describes Copeland as nothing less than extraordinary.”I have such faith that everything she’s going to do is beautiful … and it is. Her lines are exquisite. Her strength is phenomenal. She’s so special, so extraordinary,” says Wilkinson.
“It’s not that you see yourself, you feel yourself. As a dancer, I go through everything she does although she’s doing it beautifully on screen or a stage,” she says.
Copeland has said she feels those ballerinas who have paved the way for her. To which Wilkinson responded by saying, “She says she feel us in her. We feel ourselves in Misty going forward. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?”
It truly is a wonderful thing to see your dream unfold through the life of another. Wilkinson says, “the journey never stops!” –mimi demolle