NEW YORK – Misty Copeland, the Missouri-born dancer who has become a forceful voice for diversity in ballet, was named a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre on Tuesday – the first African-American ballerina to achieve that status in the company’s 75-year history.
The company announced the promotion six days after Copeland made her New York debut in the role of Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” one of the most important roles in a ballerina’s repertoire. The emotional performance ended with Copeland being greeted onstage by trailblazing black ballerinas of earlier generations, Lauren Anderson and Raven Wilkinson.
Ms. Anderson is a former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet. In 1990, she was the first African-American ballerina to become a principal for a major dance company. Raven Wilkinson was the first African-American woman to dance full-time with a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Ms. Copeland has called Wilkinson a mentor.
Ms. Copeland, 32, has become a celebrity in the past several years, making the cover of Time magazine as one of the most influential figures of 2015, and writing a best-selling memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” in which she recounted the challenges she faced on the road to her hard-won perch in ballet – and which has been optioned for a movie. She also was the subject of the documentary A Ballerina’s Tale at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Ms. Copeland also was featured in a popular ad for Under Armour sportswear that shows her leaping and spinning in a studio, while a narrator recounts some of the negative feedback she received as a youngster, when she was told she had the wrong body for ballet and had started too late – at 13.
The dancer also has appeared as a guest host on the show “So You Think You Can Dance” and was a presenter at this year’s Tony awards.
Ms. Copeland is the first black ballerina to be named principal at ABT, and the second black dancer overall. Desmond Richardson, a black male dancer, was a principal with the company in 1977-1978, and returned as a guest artist later.
Also named a principal dancer on Tuesday was longtime soloist Stella Abrera.
The ABT biography of Misty Copeland relates that Copeland received the 2008 Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Arts and was named National Youth of the Year Ambassador for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in 2013. In 2014, President Obama appointed Copeland to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. She is the winner of a 2014 Dance Magazine Award.
In addition to her best-selling memoir, Misty Copeland is the author of the children’s book “Firebird,” about a young girl who, with Copeland’s help, finds the confidence to succeed. The story was inspired by her relationship with Raven Wilkinson, she told the Los Angeles Times.
The official fan page for Misty Copeland is here.
Barbara Russum contributed to this article.