Misty Copeland: A ballerina from San Pedro has her say

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Misty Copeland performing with ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Misty Copeland has just returned from two weeks performing in Japan, and though severely jet-lagged, the American Ballet Theater soloist is eager to chat. Her excitement about the publication this month of her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, is palpable, even in a phone call from her home in New York City. "I've known from the time I started dancing that I would be telling my story at some point," she said. "I definitely didn't think it would be this soon!" There is a lot about Copeland's story that has been well documented in the press. In the book (written with Charisse Jones, the former Los Angeles Times staff writer), Copeland herself speaks out for the first time about her emotionally turbulent and often financially precarious upbringing in San Pedro, the court battle between her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, and her ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her ascension in the world of classical ballet starting with her win at the 1997 Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. The story continues with Copeland's opportunities outside of ABT, including performing with Prince, and her quest to become the first black female principal dancer in an elite ballet company.

misty-copeland-life-in-motion.jpgCopeland, 31, discovered ballet at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club, where she would spend after-school hours. Bradley, a former dancer, was teaching a class there and quickly realized that she had a dance prodigy on her hands. Copeland was 13 -- generally considered old for girls to start ballet training, but she demonstrated grace, flexibility and the capacity to quickly learn the fundamentals of ballet. She began studying more seriously at Bradley's school. To ease the commute between school and the Gardena motel where the family was living, DeLaCerna allowed her daughter to move in with Bradley and her family.

Copeland switched to home schooling and flourished in her new living arrangement. But after the success of the Spotlight Award, and a subsequent summer intensive course at San Francisco Ballet, she sensed that all was not well between her mother and Bradley. Resentment boiled over and DeLaCerna decided that Copeland, at the time 15, should move back to the motel. Plans were made for her to attend a new ballet school and enroll at San Pedro High School. At Bradley's suggestion, Copeland sued for emancipation. Gloria Allred was brought in to represent DeLaCerna and eventually the emancipation request was dropped. The unsavory episode had ended but Copeland describes in the book how she was traumatized and crushed. (Copeland writes of their relationship today, "I love my mother but I've never really understood her.")

In time, she managed to recover and continue her training in Torrance. The following year she was accepted into ABT's summer intensive program in New York City. She joined ABT's studio company in 2000, became a corp de ballet member in 2001, and was appointed an American Ballet Theater soloist (the first black female ABT soloist in 20 years) in 2007.

"It was really nice to feel comfortable enough and mature enough to be able to look back on all of those experiences that made me the dancer and woman I am," Copeland says of the memoir. "It's amazing to be sharing my story while I'm still in the midst of my career." Copeland has spoken out often about the difficulties connected with being a black ballerina in a world that is mostly white. She fully embraces the fact that she is a role model for young dancers of color, recently becoming the public face of ABT's diversity initiative Project PliƩ, which offers scholarships to minority dancers around the country. "I'm constantly out there, hands on with kids and mentoring them. They seem to feel I'm like them and I'm real. They're not intimidated. I think for the most part they want to hug me, which is so nice. They see themselves in me. I didn't have that when I first became a professional. It's a very powerful thing."

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Copeland speaks to children.

Copeland's reverence for the tradition and history of ballet has both consoled and sustained her since she began dancing. "I think that coming from my background, I never really felt like I was part of a lineage or anything I could really put my hands on," she says. "Entering the ballet world, there was something that was so comforting about knowing there was such a rich history....It was like, wow, I'm a part of this thing that's so much bigger than me.

"In ballet there is a technique that was built and we still follow that technique. There was just something about the tradition that really drew me in. I think ballet in general was this safe haven that I had never experienced before in my childhood -- feeling like I had this beautiful and fun escape from my everyday life. I still think of it that way. It's a very sacred place -- the stage and the studio -- where you can kind of escape what's happening in the world."

In addition to her book tour, Copeland is busy preparing for ABT's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The company is traveling to Abu Dhabi this month for the touring production of "Coppelia;" Copeland will be debuting in the principal role of Swanhilda, a first for her. Here in Southern California, Orange County ballet audiences can see her dance with ABT next March in the company's new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The ballet will premiere here before becoming part of the spring season at Lincoln Center. That means Copeland's family and friends get to see it before New York audiences.

Returning to Southern California to perform is a positive experience for her. "The first time I was on a big stage was at the Music Center," she says nostalgically. "I feel like this is home. It's so cool that I get to come back here and perform for my community."

Misty Copeland will speak at Live Talks Los Angeles on Thursday, March 13, at the William Turner Gallery in Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica.



Misty Copeland discussed her desire to become the first African American principal dancer in a major company at a TEDx Talk in Washington, D.C. in 2012.


Copeland solo at Gala de Ballet "Despertares" in 2012 in Mexico City.


Previously on LA Observed:
Ballet dancer Misty Copeland comes home to San Pedro
Misty Copeland takes NYC


More by Judy Graeme:
Misty Copeland: A ballerina from San Pedro has her say
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