Who Gets To Dance In 'Swan Lake'? The Answer Is Changing
Something rare is happening in the world of ballet: At the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., two African-American dancers will be the leads in The Washington Ballet's production of Swan Lake. Misty Copeland, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, will dance the dual role of Odette and Odile, while Brooklyn Mack of The Washington Ballet will dance Prince Siegfried.
Copeland and Mack have something in common that is also rare for young African-Americans: teachers who saw their potential early on and broke the unwritten rule that all ballet dancers must look alike.
Septime Webre, The Washington Ballet's longtime artistic director, says that 10 years ago he often was asked why there were no African-Americans in his company.
"My response was that, that would remain the case until the great training grounds, the great ballet schools of America become welcoming places for 9-year-old black girls," Webre says. "Families need to feel that their daughter or son of color is welcomed in these big ballet academies."
But Webre didn't wait around for that to happen. The Washington Ballet started giving classes in Anacostia — a poor, mostly black part of Washington — at an arts center called THEARC. One of the center's students, Simone Newman, 19, says Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack give her hope.
"By them doing something that, probably, they didn't think they would be able to accomplish, that really sets the tone for other people," Newman says.
Both Copeland and Mack endured plenty of skeptics to get to this point. It's hard for any ballet dancer to succeed, regardless of race, but a black dancer is up against a centuries-old aesthetic — the idea, for example, that the swan must be feather-weight and snow white, and so does her prince.
"The prince has to be 6 feet-tall, blonde with blue-eyes," says Radenko Pavlovich, artistic director of Columbia Classical Ballet in South Carolina, and Mack's first teacher. "You know, we were all taught that — that's how it is."
Mack grew up in nearby Elgin, S.C. When he was 12, he went on a field trip to see Pavlovich's company perform. Wowed by the athleticism, he told his mom he'd like to try dance. Mack says she was thrilled — and fearless when she took her son to meet Pavlovich at his school.
"She went right up to the director and said 'I want you to give my son a scholarship,' " says Mack. "And he said, 'We don't even give scholarships.' "
Pavlovich was taken aback, but agreed to take a look at what Mack could do.
"I was given what's called a barre, and obviously I had no idea what I was doing," says Mack. Pavlovich says Mack had "beautiful turn-out and flexibility, but his, um, his feet were not quite up to the part." As Mack remembers it, he told his mom "his legs are OK but his feet are terrible."
"The only way I will do this: if Brooklyn takes classes every day," Pavlovich says he told them.
"I don't know what possessed me to agree to that, but I said 'OK,' " says Mack.
There were no other black dancers at the school. Pavlovich says some of his colleagues told him not to waste his time with Brooklyn Mack; Pavlovich not only gave Mack a scholarship, he couldn't wait to teach him.
"There was this something about his eyes that was telling me that this kid is so ... I don't know, determined ... that he will do whatever he puts his mind to,' " Pavlovich says.
After about four years of working with Pavlovich, Mack went on to study with the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., apprenticed with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, and won medals at competitions around the world. Mack says he couldn't have done it without Pavlovich's support.
"He's kind of like a father to me actually, and coach," says Mack. "I still go and train with him whenever I can."
All that training has led to his role as the prince in Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center. Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, says it's about time.
"I've known Brooklyn for a very long time — from when he was a young boy who really, you know, knew that he was a prince, you know, knew that he was Siegfried, and was constantly being told 'well, you know, you should do this, or you could do that,' or 'contemporary looks so good on you,' " says Johnson. "But he had the temperament of Siegfried!"
In Swan Lake Prince Siegfried falls in love with the white swan, who will be danced by American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland. Her career is a Cinderella story of its own.
Copeland took her first ballet class at a Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif. — a free class being taught by Cindy Bradley, co-founder of The San Pedro City Ballet. The story goes that Bradley coaxed the petite 13-year-old Copeland down from the bleachers to join the class.
"She was extremely shy and very quiet," says Bradley, but the girl's physique — and feet — were perfect for ballet.
At the time, Copeland's family was living in a motel. Her mother was struggling to make ends meet. In an interview with NPR last year, Copeland said Bradley took her under her wing immediately.
"She saw talent that she'd never experienced before, as well as just me, coming from the background I did and not having the best family situation and home," Copeland recalled. "And I think that she saw that ballet was going to create this amazing life for me. So Cynthia brought me into her school on a full scholarship, and she also brought me into her home."
Bradley is in awe of Copeland's talent and work ethic. Reflecting on her rise from that Boys & Girls Club to becoming a soloist with ABT, Bradley says, "I couldn't be more proud of her."
Students at THEARC in Washington recently were invited to watch a dress rehearsal of this new rendition of Swan Lake, starring Mack and Copeland.
Sydney Campbell, 13, says she has been taking classes here since she was 5, and that she wants to join a professional company someday. As an African-American, she says Mack and Copeland are making that a possibility for her.
"Now it's showing that people are actually accepting us — accepting all kinds," says Sydney.
As Brooklyn Mack put it, meaningful change always takes time.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.