>> A bow to the past and to leap into the future, this week on "Firing Line."
[ Classical music plays ] She burst onto the scene as a teen prodigy.
♪♪ Misty Copeland went on to become the first black principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, becoming ballet's biggest superstar.
As she found her place in a world of white swans, she redefined the ballerina archetype.
>> I was aware, of course, that I was a black girl, but I don't think I really understood how rare it was to see a black woman in particular in ballet.
>> Now she's opening up about what she overcame.
>> You know, I've been told that my body isn't right.
And I know so many other women of color have experienced the same.
>> The fairy godmother she discovered along the way, her mentor, Raven Wilkinson.
>> Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum.
>> Without her, there would be no Misty.
>> And what she hopes her rise means for the future.
>> People want to feel like their stories are being told, like they can see a future for themselves.
>> What does Misty Copeland say now?
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> Misty Copeland, welcome to "Firing Line."
>> Thank you.
>> You are the most well-known ballerina in the world today.
You, unbelievably, only took your first ballet lesson when you were 13 years old.
You discovered ballet at your local Boys & Girls Clubs in Gardena, California.
What was it like at that age to find something that you could tell you were good at?
>> I mean, my life changed in an instant from the moment that I took my first ballet class.
Just to be able to discover something that -- that you truly feel like you're meant to do and built for and to be called a prodigy from the time I started.
My body responded immediately.
I don't know that my mind was there yet.
Not until I was in an actual ballet studio did it all click for me.
And I felt beautiful.
I felt like I belonged for the first time in my life.
>> So, by the age of 15, just two years later, you were performing roles that it takes many dancers years and years to be chosen to perform.
And you were given a contract to join the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company just four years into your ballet training.
What was it like to join the American Ballet Theatre?
I was seen by some of the artistic staff of American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, and was given scholarships to attend their training programs.
But ABT was always the goal.
They were the one company of all the elite major ballet companies around the world that you don't really have to go through a school in order to get in.
They take dancers from different countries and cultures and, like, styles of training and schools.
So my teacher, I think, being very forward-thinking and -looking, understood that, as a black girl and as a young black woman coming into professional company, that that would probably be the best fit, in terms of their diversity.
>> Was it?
>> It was.
I mean, hands down, I mean, they have -- have had throughout their history such a diverse lineup of dancers.
You know, superstars from Russia and Spain and Italy, and I mean, just everywhere.
>> And yet you were the only black woman dancer.
>> And for the first 10 years, that was the case.
>> And everything shifted for me when I joined the company.
I was aware, of course, that I was a black girl, but I don't think I really understood how rare it was to see a black woman in particular in ballet.
Because there have been more black men throughout history in classical companies.
But the woman represents the ballet.
She is the focus.
The man is behind her and supports her.
But they -- they've not seen or given opportunity to black women to be the sole focus of what ballet is.
So when I entered the company, I was the only black woman for, like you said, a decade.
>> How important was that to you, in the context of your training there?
>> When I joined ABT, it wasn't really something that I thought about.
You know, I grew up in Southern California in diverse neighborhoods and had never really been in a situation where I was "the only."
And so I thought, "I'm moving to New York City."
It's a metropolitan city.
Diverse in every way.
And then I spend 8 hours a day surrounded by only white people.
And it was a shock.
And then, you know, the conversations started -- early on in my career, started to change where, as before, it was like, "Misty Copeland, the Prodigy, meant to do ballet, born to do ballet."
And then it became, like, "Do you belong in this space?
You're the only black woman.
If so, you will be the first black woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the company's history."
And it shifted my focus.
It shifted my purpose and what I felt like my presence was.
And it -- But it changed in a good way.
I think it made me see this opportunity as much bigger than myself.
You know, a lot of dancers, you come in, and it's fine, and you're focused on you, you're focused on reaching these goals, but I felt like I was representing an entire community and I had a big responsibility.
>> Well, you've written a new book.
It's called "The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson."
In your writing, it's clear that you're someone who knows a bit about history and the history of ballet.
And yet you had never heard of Raven Wilkinson.
>> Tell us how you discovered her.
I was watching a documentary on the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo because I love to learn more and more about the history of ballet.
And it's so inspiring to know this amazing lineage that you're a part of.
And this beautiful, petite, and elegant black woman appears on the screen.
>> In my second season, I received my first solo, which was the waltz in "Les Sylphides."
>> And she starts talking about how she was a soloist with this company.
In 1955 is when she joined.
And it stunned me because I had no idea that a black woman danced in this company.
A black woman danced in a company of that caliber.
And then to hear her talk about, you know, the struggles.
>> I remember Montgomery.
We came into town on the bus, and the Klan was having a rally.
>> Her career was cut short in America because of racism.
>> Why had she been written out of history?
>> I don't know if I can truly answer that.
You know, I think this is the experience of a lot of black people in America in particular, especially in these -- these elite art forms, that our histories, our stories are not documented.
They choose dancers that can blend in, that can easily have makeup applied that will lighten their skin.
And Raven was very fair-skinned, just like me.
You know, and that's something that I talk about in the book, as well, is the -- the importance of having the discussion about colorism because it's still very much alive.
And I say that very openly that if I had darker skin, if Raven had darker skin, we wouldn't be given these opportunities.
But it's a first step to open the doors for other women and other dancers of color.
>> So, Raven Wilkinson joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955, and she became a soloist.
>> This company was significant because it toured all over the United States and all over Europe.
The company even toured through the Deep South at the height of segregation.
What kind of experiences did Raven tell you about in the context of being a black ballerina and touring through the Deep South during segregation?
You know, what was so special about Raven is that she had such a full and open heart.
So she would -- she would tell stories here and there.
But the lesson in that was always that, you know, the dancers around her treated her like one of them.
And, you know, even when you had the KKK threatening her life or arriving at the theater and coming onto the stage and interrupting a rehearsal, she had the support of her dancers that were there, you know, to protect her.
And that was her focus of these stories was the beautiful relationships and the camaraderie that she had and felt within the ballet community.
And just having her as a mentor, it changed my outlook on so many things in my career and in my life.
And it felt like if Raven can get through that and still have such deep love for this art form, then I definitely can.
[ Chuckles ] >> When you finally met her in 2011, you learned that she lived in your neighborhood.
>> That she had been following your career.
You write, quote... >> Mm-hmm.
>> After you met Raven, you went on to star in the ABT's production of "Firebird."
Your image was enlarged and draped in the front of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City.
You ultimately earned the role of the Swan Queen in "Swan Lake," and you were finally promoted as a principal dancer.
How does Raven own those firsts?
>> [ Chuckles ] Without her, there would be no Misty.
And it was important for me to bring her with me on this journey.
I mean, as soon as I found out who she was, I met her.
It was like she was a family member, and she was there celebrating all of these accomplishments because she helped -- she helped open those doors for me to even have these opportunities.
And one of the most memorable was my "Swan Lake" debut at the Metropolitan Opera House.
You know, to be able to have Raven come onto the stage and present me with flowers after my performance, when, as a black woman, she never was given an opportunity to perform on that stage.
So to have her go on that stage and -- And it was like a passing of the torch and a passing of the baton to, like, finish this race that she started 50 years before me was -- it was absolutely incredible and, like, why I do what I do.
>> What do you think that moment meant to her?
>> I think that it was -- it was like finishing the race.
Like, being able to watch me finish this race that she started.
It was like a second wind for her, being able to experience all this celebration when she didn't get that celebration within her career.
>> In Nelson George's documentary about you, "A Ballerina's Tale," we actually get to see you do an ad hoc performance of the "Four Little Swans Variation" from "Swan Lake" with Raven.
>> Tell me about that scene.
>> Oh, my gosh.
It literally stole the show.
>> ♪ Dun dun dun dun, da, da da ya ♪ >> [ Laughing ] >> She came over, and, of course, it turned into a performance.
[ Both laugh ] And we started talking about roles that we shared that we had both danced.
And so she wanted to stand up and actually see if we performed the same choreography, the same version of it.
So, in my apartment, holding hands with this legend and performing this iconic part of the "Four Cygnets" -- "The Four Little Swans," in "Swan Lake" -- was such a beautiful moment for the film but for me as a dancer.
Like, I never dreamed in a million years that I would be holding hands with this black ballerina that -- and that we had performed literally the same role, you know, with 50 years between us.
>> You write... Is that something you experienced personally?
You know, this is -- it's -- it's ingrained in the culture.
As hard as it is to say, I've definitely had those experiences where, you know, I've been told that my body isn't right, I'm too curvy, I'm too muscular, I'm too short, my breasts are too big.
There's been so many excuses and I know so many other women of color have experienced the same, you know, the language that's being used around black women and black bodies.
And it's an acceptable way of saying, "You don't belong," rather than saying, "The color of your skin doesn't fit in."
>> Let me read you something that you write about, regarding your early years at ABT.
Quote... >> Yeah.
Even to this day -- Maybe in the last two years, things might have changed because the conversation really opened up, you know?
And, you know, what's incredible is that the ballet technique is a language that transcends, like, so many cultures.
I can go to Russia, I can go to Colombia, I can go to anywhere, and I may not speak the same language, but as ballet, like, we understand each other.
And so you can train in different parts of the world and come together and look unified.
So there is this -- this amazing commonality, and I think that makes the dancers look like one.
It's because of the technique that we've all learned in the same language we speak.
But it doesn't have to be so literal as "Every dancer has exact same skin tone, exact same body type."
And I think that it's got lost in translation over the years.
>> Does that practice still exist at the ABT?
You know, that's a conversation that I have been having since I've been a professional, you know, for 20-plus years.
And -- And I've definitely challenged the purpose of it.
I remember just feeling like I was losing myself every time I was putting this makeup on.
I just felt like, you know, like, "What am I doing?
Do I really belong here?"
And I remember having conversations with the makeup team and saying, like, "What's the purpose of this?
Can we discuss the purpose?"
"It's to make you look otherworldly, because in these ballet blancs," which translates to white ballets, "you're typically -- Like, in 'Giselle,' you play, like, a dead girl.
They're the willies and they're spirits, or you're an animal or something like that."
And so the point is to take away the shine so you look less human.
So I said, "Why can't I have brown powder on my face and I'm still me?"
And the conversation became, "Well, okay, that makes sense."
And it was just kind of like that.
And we don't really do that anymore when it comes to the second-act ballets for dancers that don't have white skin.
>> One of the many ways you've left an imprint.
You write about the joy of finally being able to be cast in "Swan Lake."
>> This is the most important role in ballet, and it's because one dancer performs Odette, the good white swan, and Odile, the evil black swan.
But even that seems like pretty poignant symbolism.
[ Chuckles ] Yeah, it is.
People, I think, don't really think about that symbolism and what that means.
But it was a huge and amazing opportunity to be able to be performing as the black and the white swan as a black woman.
>> Because black women are typically not cast as the white swan.
And it's always been told to us that, you know, "A black woman can't perform the white swan."
And my pushback has always been, you know, that we're actors and actresses on stage, and we're becoming these characters, and a black woman doesn't portray the black swan.
So why does...?"
You know, it doesn't make sense to me.
It's like we're becoming these characters and... You know, but it was a huge step for ABT to have me portray that role.
>> You've been really candid about the fact that when you were told that you weren't thin enough when you were starting out in the company, you would go and buy Krispy Kreme doughnuts and binge eat doughnuts.
And as you point out, it isn't always the case that ballerinas were expected to be rail-thin.
You know, it became a trend in the 20th century, thanks to George Balanchine.
Do you think we're getting to a point where there can be some forgiveness and some acceptance for a variety of body types to be accepted in ballet?
>> I do.
I think that the conversation is so different than it was even 10 years ago, you know, around what the purpose of these performances are.
And stories told through a diverse group of bodies and cultures and communities is so much more rich, you know?
And so I think that, also, when you look at the way choreography has evolved, body types are going to clearly evolve with that.
The more athletic the movement is, bodies are going to, you know, shift and change depending on what you have to do to be able to accomplish that.
So I definitely think we've come a long way from that Twiggy-esque model body that became the norm in the '60s.
>> The ballet audience is aging.
>> The number of people who go to see ballets is in decline.
Now, when you became the first black woman to perform the role of Firebird, you were able to bring an entirely new audience to the theater, perhaps the most diverse audience the Met has ever seen.
Can attracting racially diverse audiences save the ballet?
I mean, we're already seeing such a shift.
You know, again, to have -- to have people come to my performances and have sold-out shows night after night because they're seeing themselves reflected, I mean, that speaks volumes.
People want to feel like their stories are being told, like they can see a future for themselves, you know, to see success in in a variety of shapes and sizes and colors.
>> So what needs to happen for ballet to sustain this diversity?
>> You know, it's kind of dismantling the structure of it, the institutions, that it's not just about the dancers on the stage being diverse, but it's seeing diversity, you know, from the ground up.
You know, the teachers that are teaching young people in schools, you need to see yourself reflected in your teacher and have that support.
It's diversity in the board rooms because they're the ones that are hiring the artistic staff and the executive director and have a lot of say in the repertoire that we're performing.
It's important to see diversity behind the scenes.
>> Are you hopeful that ballet can change, as you say, from the ground up?
>> I am absolutely hopeful.
>> What gives you -- why?
What gives you the confidence that ballet can really diversify?
>> Because I've seen it.
I've seen it happen.
The conversations that are happening internally in ballet companies are beyond what I ever imagined it could be.
We're even having conversations about whether or not we should still be performing certain ballets because of sexism and because of racism.
All of these things are huge leaps for the ballet community.
It seems a little slow because it is compared to what we're going through in the world.
But these are big changes.
And it makes me really hopeful that we're going to continue to make strides.
>> This program was hosted by a man named William F. Buckley Jr., originally, who, in 1965, engaged in a famous debate with James Baldwin.
>> And they were debating America's racial divide.
Take a look at this clip.
>> It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that 1/9th of its population is beneath them.
And until that moment, until the moment comes, when we, the Americans, we, the American people, are able to accept the fact that I have to accept, for example, that my ancestors were both white and black, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America.
I am not an object in missionary charity.
I am one of the people who built the country.
>> Baldwin ultimately left the United States and lived as an expatriate for a time, which is something Raven did, as well.
Did she talk to you about her decision to leave?
You know... this was at a time when, you know, these major ballet companies were not hiring any people of color, especially women.
And it got to a point where Raven didn't have any other opportunities here.
And she loved being in New York City.
She loved being in America.
She was so proud to call herself an American.
But she -- you know, in order to keep dancing and doing what she loved, she moved to Amsterdam and danced with the Dutch National Ballet, where she was able to have incredible opportunities in the performance world.
But that's still the case today with a lot of black dancers that end up going off to Europe, where there are more opportunities with a variety of companies.
>> You and your husband, Olu Evans, have welcomed a baby boy to the world.
Can you tell us when you plan to be back on stage?
>> I'm looking at the winter of 2023 to be back on stage.
>> Is there a role you have in mind that you might be preparing for?
>> I do.
You know, I -- I wanted to go back to the stage with something that I'm really comfortable in, and that means a lot to me.
So I'm hoping that it would be "The Nutcracker" in my hometown, which is where we perform "The Nutcracker" in California.
So that would be a nice welcome back.
>> It certainly would.
It certainly would.
Misty Copeland, for the work you've done and for the story of your connection with Raven, thank you for joining me on "Firing Line."
>> Thank you so much for having me.
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> You're watching PBS.