Misty Triumphs in Swan Lake Fouettés Be Damned

Her Odette was spellbinding: classically elegant with a velvety quality of slowness. Her Odile was direct and strong, reveling in her power over Siegfried.

Throughout yesterday’s matinee of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake, Misty Copeland’s full-body lines were exquisite, her flawless balance allowing you to see those lines. Odette’s softly elongated arms morphed into dangerous slicing instruments for Odile. Copeland’s every intention was legible, whether explaining her predicament to Siegfried or protecting him from von Rothbart.

This was a breakthrough role for Copeland. I’ve seen her be super flirty as the Flower Girl in Gaité Parisienne and joyfully abandoned as Mercedes in Don Q. I’ve seen her fighting spirit as the lead warrior in Fokine’s Polovtsian Dances, and her inner fire as the Firebird. I’ve seen her vibrancy in Balanchine’s Duo Concertant and Tharp’s Highland Fling. But I’ve never seen her in a role that requires softness and vulnerability.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see how she mastered the poignancy of Odette. Her head and neck were beautifully expressive, and she took comfort in her closeness to Prince Siegfried (danced with ardor by James Whiteside). Her timing was magnificent in both gestures and technical moves. You could feel the pull between fear and hope, sorrow and romance. Not surprisingly, I learned that she was coached by Irina Kolpokova, a Dance Magazine awardee in 2010.

Misty’s Odile was definitely a seductress, tempting Siegfried but colluding with Rothbart. Occasionally I felt her moves were a bit too sharp with little follow-through. Although her supported turns were exquisitely controlled, her fouettés in the coda started drifting stage right and she had to finish with turns in fifth. Some die-hard ballet fans might object, but I’ve heard that even Margot Fonteyn had trouble staying in one spot during fouettés. Anyway, Copeland’s double portrayal revealed such artistry that I didn’t mind the flubbed fouettés. And besides, by switching to turns in fifth, she kept the energy up. Good save, Misty!

The audience at the Met, which was more racially integrated than I’d ever seen it, was stoked. They applauded not only for her first entrance, but for almost every subsequent entrance. In the quiet parts their attentiveness was palpable. At the end, the whoops and hollers were much louder than is usual at matinees.

With an awareness of history being made, ABT had arranged for two special women to greet the new Odette/Odile during the final bows. Lauren Anderson, former star of Houston Ballet and possibly the only other African American to dance the complete Odette/Odile role, gave her flowers and a hug. She was followed by Raven Wilkinson, the only African American dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Wilkinson seemed to mime part of the ballet as she edged back into the wings. (For more on the history of blacks in ballet, see Theresa Ruth Howard’s posting on the subject.)

A recent memory: When Wilkinson presented Misty with a Dance Magazine Award last December, she called Misty a “crescent moon” and said, “She steps out onstage and you know something beautiful will happen.”

And yesterday, something beautiful—and historic—did happen. I’m glad I was there to witness it.

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