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American Ballet Theatre

Another first for Misty Copeland, and many in ballet say it’s about time

She and Calvin Royal III are the first black couple to perform lead roles for American Ballet Theatre

Misty Copeland has made history. Again.

She and fellow dancer Calvin Royal III took the stage on Jan. 18 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, to become the first black couple to perform lead roles for American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

Dancers of color are not new to ABT. There are several in the company right now. But lead dancers of color, especially black lead dancers, are a rarity for most major classical ballet companies.

The two are performing in ABT’s production of Harlequinade, a 19th-century ballet about a clown who seeks to marry a woman against her father’s wishes. Copeland and Royal play commedia dell’arte stock characters, Pierrette and Pierrot, secondary lead roles to Harlequin and his love interest, Columbine.

Copeland made headlines in 2015 when she was anointed as ABT’s prima ballerina and, by extension, its first black female principal dancer. Kelley L. Carter, senior culture writer for The Undefeated, wrote that the 36-year-old biracial dancer is “personally responsible for renewing and increasing the profile of ballet itself.”

Copeland didn’t stop there. That same year, she and African-American dancer Brooklyn Mack achieved another first together. They performed the lead roles in a rendition of Swan Lake for the Washington Ballet — the first African-American couple to ever do so in the U.S.

A New York Times review of the show said the plot was antiquated and flimsy and questioned whether the commedia dell’arte was worth revisiting at all. Casting two ultratalented African-Americans in lead (and traditionally white) roles has eclipsed that critique and dominated recent press around the production. The ballet opened Jan. 17 with ABT principal dancer Stella Abrera playing the role of Pierrette.

Kelly Ryan, director of press and public relations for ABT, said the company is aware that the production (which includes Copeland and Royal) has resonated with the public.

André M. Zachery, founder and artistic director of Renegade Performance Group, is happy for Copeland and Royal. But he’s not convinced their breakthrough means more black dancers will lead more major dance companies like ABT.

“It’s weird to say, but I think it’s irrelevant,” Zachery said. “Ballet is really still built to tell the narrative of European royal court. Whether there are two black leads or not doesn’t mean a shift for black dancers.”

Zachery, a 37-year-old native of Chicago, is trained in classical ballet and several other dance forms. He transferred from Florida A&M University to the Ailey/Fordham Program in New York. The performance group he established in 2007, like Ailey, promotes stories and artistic expressions associated with black Americans and the African diaspora.

While he doesn’t think Copeland and Royal lead roles will create more opportunities for other black dancers, Zachery says their careers still hold significance.

“We need Misty, Calvin and Eric Underwood [a black American British professional dancer with the Royal Ballet] to show the range of possibilities for blackness,” he said.

But he questions why it’s so important to see black dancers in traditionally white companies. He’d rather see black dancers in the top tier of companies that tell stories about the black experience.

Alicia Graf Mack, director of the dance division of Juilliard, sees things differently.

“We are seeing the slow drip of progress that has been happening over decades, beginning with people like Raven Wilkinson and Arthur Mitchell,” she said. The Columbia, Maryland, native has been dancing for most of her life and worked as a lead dancer for Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She trained at ABT’s summer program as a teenager.

Graf Mack, who will be 40 next month, said she was extremely proud of Copeland and Royal for representing dance in such a beautiful way. But she said the list of talented black dancers does not stop there. It includes Taylor Stanley (New York City Ballet), Precious Adams (English National Ballet) and Michaela DePrince (Dutch National Opera & Ballet).

“Not only are we starting to see more black dancers,” she added, “we are seeing more black choreographers in major companies as well.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded in 1969, is the only other major company to feature black dancers in lead roles. Virginia Johnson, former prima ballerina and current artistic director for the company, is a founding member. She called the news about Copeland and Royal a step in the right direction.

“They [Copeland and Royal] are superb artists and those are exactly the kind of roles they should be dancing,” she wrote in an email. “It is a step in the right direction but I’d love to get to the point that no one feels a need to comment on it.”

She hopes other ballet companies will follow suit.

“Kudos to ABT for the progress it is making. As artistic director of an institution that has brought diversity to the ballet stage for 50 years, I look forward to more of the same from ballet companies everywhere.”

Harlequinade is in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 29 and in New York on May 13.

Eryn Mathewson is the editorial coordinator for the Rhoden Fellows program. She enjoys coaching young journalists, writing and producing podcasts. When she's not working, she's probably running or watching "bad" TV.