Ballet star Misty Copeland is playing her most important role ever

How “Swan Lake,” currently starring Copeland, became a symbol of ballet

After 14 years dancing with American Ballet Theatre, including eight as a soloist, Misty Copeland was promoted to principal dancer on Tuesday, making her the first African-American woman to hold that position at ABT.

Ballet is a conservative art form, and many directors and choreographers prefer to cast dancers who can blend in with the corps. Yet Copeland has already broken numerous barriers as a black ballet dancer. Over the past few years, she’s become one of the most visible faces of ABT. Last year, she published a New York Times best-selling memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. She’s appeared on the cover of Time and been profiled in The New Yorker. In a viral and widely praised ad campaign for sportswear company Under Armour, she spoke movingly about challenging her teachers’ expectations of what constitutes a typical “ballet body.”

Copeland’s promotion coincides with another important breakthrough for her: playing Odette/Odile in the company’s production of Swan Lake.

In the 140 years since Swan Lake premiered, it’s become one of the most familiar ballets in the world; from Russia to New York, virtually every company performs some version. Just this spring, though, a company in Washington, D.C. managed to do something radically different with one of the most traditional ballets: In April, The Washington Ballet became the first major American company to cast two African-American dancers in the lead roles. Misty Copeland, at the time a soloist with ABT (and, increasingly, a spokesperson for diversity in ballet) played Odette/Odile, and Brooklyn Mack of The Washington Ballet played Prince Siegfried. Last week, Copeland took her portrayal of Odette/Odile to an even bigger stage—the Metropolitan Opera House, in ABT’s production.

Swan Lake occupies a special place in the classical ballet canon. Not only is it so famous that parts of it are practically cliché—from the feathered headbands to the dance of the four baby swans holding hands—but it’s also one of the most traditional ballets in the repertoire. The plot has its origins in European folklore, and like the other classic story ballets—Giselle, Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker—it combines elements of fairytale, melodrama and myth. On a hunting expedition, Prince Siegfried catches sight of a magnificent swan; when he takes aim, the swan is transformed into a beautiful woman. Odette, as she’s called, was long ago cursed by a sorcerer who condemned her to live as a swan during the day, floating in a lake of her mother’s tears; only at night can she occupy her human body. The curse can be lifted if a prince falls in love with her, but the sorcerer sends another beautiful woman, Odile, who seduces Siegfried away from Odette. Too late, he realizes he’s been tricked; Siegfried and Odette drown themselves in the lake.

The roles of Odette and Odile are traditionally played by the same dancer, making it one of the most demanding roles in the canon. The casting of a non-white lead is particularly poignant because Swan Lake relies on the association of goodness with light and evil with black; Odette is always dressed in a white costume, while Odile appears in black.

Swan Lake’s history, too, epitomizes a certain classical tradition. Tchaikovsky started working on the score in 1875, and Swan Lake premiered in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Like other ballets that went on to become classics (most famously, The Nutcracker), it was initially panned; it was only when it was revived at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1895, with new choreography by Marius Petipa, that critics recognized its merits. Over the past century, it’s been reinterpreted by practically every major American choreographer, including George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Peter Martins.

But the significance of Swan Lake transcends the world of dance; it’s saturated pop culture in a way that’s unusual for a ballet. Black Swan, which stars Natalie Portman as a dancer trying to get in touch with her dark side to portray Odile, was nominated for five Academy Awards in 2010. Swan Lake has inspired a Barbie movie, a Saturday Night Live sketch and an episode of My Little Pony.

As Copeland herself said on NBC’s Today show, “You envision this very pale Russian extremely tall woman as the swan.” In defying that stereotype in one of the most famous ballets of all time, Copeland may be playing her most important role yet.

Below, see moments from past Swan Lake productions:


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