Misty Copeland on Tavis Smiley

Apropos of our recent discussion on race and ballet, ABT’s Misty Copeland was recently on the Tavis Smiley show. She talks about race, ballet, elitism, her training, her recent appearance onstage with Prince, the immense difficulty of ballet, and of course, Black Swan. She’s very well spoken. Go Misty!

Also, speaking of Black Swan, here’s an essay by former NYCB dancer Toni Bentley in the Daily Beast. Bentley has more guts than anyone else in the industry, that’s for damn sure. Go Toni!

Above photo of Copeland taken from Martini Pink.


  1. Thanks for the links, Tonya!

    They both proved interesting, and informative.

    One thing: I am really getting tired of Toni Bently’s Gelsey Kirkland bashing. I don’t think it added anything to her article, it’s just becoming the same old song for her and some others in the ballet establishment. It seems that almost every time I read an article written by Bently, there is some snarky comment about Gelsey involved.

    I’m guessing what really happened is that movie hit a nerve, and so Bently had to blame someone. But who? Why, our favorite whipping girl of ballet, that’s who!

    Doesn’t anybody find it interesting that Kirkland has never said one word about her in return? Go Toni! Yes, Toni, go. Go home. Go home and see if you can write an article about ballet that doesn’t include cutting down a woman who’s career ended over twenty-five ago, and whom you’ve been vilifying over it ever since, just because she wrote an honest account of it.

    O.K. Tonya, I’ve said my piece. Glad you had a great time at the beach!

    • Yeah, by “Go Toni” I meant more that she had the guts to say what a lot of people seem to be feeling but not saying. I didn’t agree with everything she said, but it seems like I keep having the same conversation over and over again with people at the ballet about how insulting they felt the movie was. Yet everyone keeps saying on their blogs and in their reviews and public speeches and whatnot that they liked it and are grateful for bringing more attention to ballet. So I’m glad someone finally just came out and said the movie had problems!

      I confess I don’t know anything about the Bentley / Kirkland rivalry. So, I may have misinterpreted Bentley when she wrote about Gelsey. I thought she was saying that Gelsey was a great dancer and a great artist, but that that was before her breakdown, and that it’s so much blasted work to rise to such a high level as an artist that someone who’s as mentally ill as Nina in the movie couldn’t possibly be successful as an artist. I don’t know how true that is, since throughout history there have been more than a few rather psychologically unstable artists, but I think she was more trying to distance the character of Nina – an anorexic, self-mutilating, dangerously mentally ill nut job – from the vast majority of ballet dancers. Because of Gelsey’s book Bentley realized she wasn’t going to be able to get away with saying NO great ballet dancers have ever had any mental illness, so then she had to say Gelsey was great until she started to have her breakdown.

      I actually wish someone would make a serious movie based on Gelsey’s book. I think it would be a heck of a lot more interesting than Black Swan.

  2. Misty Copeland looked sexy and quite glam on the Tavis Smiley show. She also came across as quite the dedicated artist.

    Unfortunately, Tavis didn’t ask her about her ambition to become ABT’s first African American principal. Instead, he got bogged down on the very subject of simply her being a black ballerina.

    Yes, black ballerinas may be rare, but it’s not like they are so uncommon that they hang out with with unicorns or something.

    Clearly, Tavis isn’t a ballet person.

    • Hi – thank you for commenting, Sunset12. Yeah, I agree that Misty came across as a very serious and dedicated artist. You’re right – Tavis didn’t seem to know a lot about ballet. It seemed like he didn’t know that a soloist was different from a principal and what all she could really aspire to, and what being a principal means in terms of roles and prestige, etc. I guess the world of ballet really is rarefied these days, unfortunately. I just want Misty to dance Odette / Odile!

      • Not only am I pulling for her promotion because of her talent, but for superficial reasons as well.

        I love her curvy body that is so atypical for ballerinas. Also, I like the Prince connection. I mean, you just don’t expect a rock legend/classical dancer hookup. That they would be interested in each other makes them both look cooler, IMO.

        • I know what you mean. I love that she doesn’t have the “traditional” ballerina body. A lot of the ABT dancers don’t, and I love that about ABT! Yes, I also love that Prince chose her for this too – it’s good for both of them!

  3. Hi Tonya!

    First off: Sorry for using the “Go Toni” quote. It was snarky, and I should have thought about it before I used it. My bad. It really had nothing to do with you.

    And, I agreed with you. I did agree with a lot of what Bentley said in her essay. But, unfortunately, it got ruined with her comments again, for the millionth time, about Kirkland. I just got tired of her being used as a punching bag by the ballet establishment, and the result was my comment on your blog.

    And, yes, “Dancing On My Grave” would make a great movie! Although, this time, I would train a real dancer for a year in acting, to perform the role, rather than the other way around. I think the result would be much better.


    • I agree – it would be interesting to see a professional dancer trained as an actor. To be honest, I think ALL dancers should take acting classes – or at least those who are going primarily to dance in the classical story ballets. Many of the dancers don’t seem to know how to act – they’re just going through steps – and that really prevents people from connecting to their characters. I can always tell when a dancer has had acting training – like Hee Seo for instance. Her Juliet was on a totally different level from most of the others’.

      • I totally agree. After my Big Ballet Career went up in smoke, I started studying acting. I still danced occasionally, did a lot of musical theater. I noticed then, that people commented on the “character” part of my performances a lot more, and connected to what I was doing on the stage.

        I also think that people misinterpret what Balanchine meant by “don’t act”, just do. In my opinion, he “typecast” his ballets, ie: whatever emotion he needed for the role was already there in the dancer he chose. He was a great student of Stanislavsky, back in Russia, so he didn’t want classically “trained” actors in his ballets, in my opinion. He would give just enough info to get the result he wanted. The rest was based on the personality of the dancer.

        I feel that is why “Duo Conertante” is such a bore for people today. We don’t know exactly what emotion Mr. B. was going for when he cast Kay Mazzo in the role. And he never told. So, we may never know the original emotional background of the piece, even though the Balanchine Trust has all the steps.

        So, what do you think?

        • Jeff, I’m so glad you broached this! My friend Marie and I have been talking about Balanchine and what he meant by that and why his work doesn’t seem as popular, or understood, as it once was. As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t really see from today’s performances why he was considered to be so great. I like some of his ballets, yes definitely, but when critics trash the choreographers of today because they’re not as genius as he was, I don’t get it. I always think today’s dancers just aren’t “acting” it right, or that they don’t know what he originally intended and so are not doing something right, and the audience is missing something. But it makes sense what you say about how Balanchine chose someone who exemplified perfectly what he wanted to convey and who would naturally convey it. The ballets I always find the most compelling seem to be the ones where the dancers seem perfectly cast – like Janie Taylor in La Valse, or Ashley Bouder in Rubies. I felt like when I saw Ashley dance Serenade for the first time recently that I understood now why her character is important. I’d only ever paid attention to the fallen one and the angel before, never the third girl, and now I see why Balanchine included that third girl. Sometimes a dancer just naturally dances a certain way and brings out in the role what is supposed to be brought out just … naturally I guess. But then what to do about the roles where there don’t seem to be the “proper” dancers anymore, and where there aren’t many people left from Balanchine’s era who can train them? It seems like creating a dance on a specific dancer would be problematic for continuity, even though that is how many dances are created I realize.

          I’m so glad you’re commenting here, since you know so much!

          • Thanks for the reply! That was a great compliment you paid me, and I thank you.

            Yes, I think the quote from Mr. B. is actually “Don’t think, just do”.

            That mirrors the Stanislavsky “method” of “being” the role. The actor imagines herself “as if” she were Juliet meeting romeo for the first time. She is herself, “as” Juliet. Actors are admonished constantly to “don’t act, just be” the role. See? It’s “Don’t think, just do” for the dancer!

            As a choreographer, I believe Balanchine used the Method in casting his ballets, then gave just enough information to get the performance he wanted. It really required a leap of faith on the part of the dancer, and not everyone was up to it.

            But, the problem, you see, is that Mr. B. never wrote any libretto down, or espoused any emotional techniques for his ballets, other than the hints he would give his own dancers. That he was adamant about.

            So there you have it. Even his own dancers often didn’t have any idea of what emotional subtext he was working with, so how are they going to teach it? It’s all best guess, really.

            Finally, Balanchine often said in interviews that his ballets would not live beyond his death, and he didn’t want them to. But no one seemed to believe him. Because they loved him and his work so much, I believe.

            Balanchine was a beautiful moment in time, maybe it’s time to move on.

  4. Tonya, interesting comment about how conversations you’ve had with dancers are different from what they are saying in public.

    Honestly, when I was a pro ballet dancer, I ran into everything Aronofsky put in his movie more than once! But, just not all at once, in the same person. The “crazy”, was spread around a little bit more.

    I remember one time I was in David Howard’s class, when a ballerina ran into the girl’s dressing room, and started to scream bloody murder. A ballet mistress having regular breakdowns in class. Tears on a regular basis. Let’s face it. Stuff like that is just not normal. Or healthy.

    But, more than that, there was beauty, and inspiration. The real reason why we all danced.

    I think that what is upsetting these dancers that you talk to is that they feel their world is being shown as all darkness with no light. It’s as if Aronofsky split ballet down the middle and kept all the bad, throwing away the good.

    Kind of like showing a family picture album with nothing but images of all the dirty laundry of that particular family. No birthdays, Christmases, weddings, nothing but every argument and fight that family had.

    I, personally, thought Black Swan was a great piece of movie making, nothing more, nothing less. And Natalie Portman’s acting was awesome. But it certainly does not “represent” the real world of classical ballet in any definitive way.

    I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.

    • As someone who resides about as far outside the classical dance world as you can get, I think the movie makes the world of ballet look like a dark, mysterious, alluring, woman.

      A creature who is beautiful, fascinating and yes, more than a little bit scary. That’s not the worst metaphor for a beautiful art form. So what if it’s not the total truth?

      And yes, I’m one of those philistines whose long dormant interest in ballet was awakened by this film, a film ironically, that insiders apparently detest.

      And did anyone notice most of the reponses at “The Beast” to Ms. Bently’s piece? I have to say that I get where they are coming from. Her witchy tone merely confims many of the stereotypical views many civilians have about ballet folk…..that they’re huffy, humorless, snobby, holier-than-thou and far too dismissive of more popular froms of dance.

      Way to win friends and influence people.

      • Yeah, now that I’m re-reading it, Bentley was quite hostile – particularly to Natalie, who didn’t deserve that condescension. It’s not her fault she’s not a professional ballerina, and she could hardly be expected to become one in a year. I’d have focused my criticism more on Aronofksy, who chose for some reason not to use her dance double very much. He could have shown more dance, if he wanted, by using Sarah Lane, who looks a lot like Natalie.

        I still appreciate that Bentley spoke her mind though. I think her provocative comments will now propel others in the dance world to post their thoughts, most of whom probably won’t be so harsh now that she was. You know what I mean – how when one person kind of overstates a case, others then come in and say oh, it’s not that bad at all.

        It’s interesting because I belong to several journalist list servs and I’ve been seeing a few reporters requesting to talk to people in the dance industry about the movie and how realistic it is. I’ve also noticed more articles like Bentley’s and that one in the Daily Beast by the piano player guy who I linked to earlier popping up on various websites. And journalists have even contacted me for my thoughts – more on Millepied than on the film though. But, I think this movie (and Millepied’s engagement to Portman) have really made people more interested in ballet. I’m glad the movie sparked your interest!

  5. That is all SO interesting, Jeff! (I had to comment down here because it wouldn’t let me “reply” to your Balanchine’s “don’t think, just do” comment. I’m learning so much from you! Am definitely going to write a post in the future about this and link to your comment. So interesting that Balanchine didn’t expect his choreography to survive him. I feel like so many critics focus their criticism on the fact that it’s not surviving properly. Even if they’re not directly reviewing a current performance of a Balanchine ballet, I feel like what Balanchine’s ballets used to be like is at the heart of their review of a current choreographer. It’s almost the point of ballet criticism in the US these days. I so agree with you – time to move on!

  6. I have to agree with Tonya–this is so interesting.

    Also, the “don’t think, just do” command still exists in dance, and across all forms. I–as a more cerebral person–am always told in class to stop “thinking.” The teachers all say that “thinking shows,” and that “thinking” is not what an audience wants to see.

    • Yeah, I got told that all the time too, in ballroom class as well as ballet. I couldn’t do it – I couldn’t not think. With me, I interpreted them to mean let the muscle memory take over, feel the music, feel the dance, you’re not going to remember in your head, you have to use your body to remember the choreography (I was always forgetting my routine, obviously). I think I’m just too old to learn to think / act/ do any differently 🙂

  7. I think when teachers give that comment, it’s not that they want you to stop thinking entirely, just to stay “in the moment” of the dance. It’s another Method technique, “being in the moment”.

    It’s just that when when you start analyzing, thinking about how you’re going to do the next step, what emotion you’re going to drum up…..it takes you outside of the present moment. Instead of just knowing what you’re going to do and just “being” it while you’re doing it. Again, it takes a leap of faith.

    A good example was when I danced “Rubies” for one performance. The company manager came up to me raving about my performance as compared to the Pas De Six in “Midsummer’s Night Dream”, by Mr. B. The former I really “acted”, with all the flourishes I thought necessary for classical ballet. The latter, I didn’t even have time to “think”, as the counts are very complicated, and I simply didn’t even have time to worry about how I looked. In short, I basically got out of my own way in performance. Would that I could have realized that at the time!

    Hey maybe I could coach balanchine! Lol!

  8. Whoops! I meant I really “acted” in “Dream”, and in “Rubies”, I didn’t even have time to think! Sorry.

  9. I’m surprised when I hear people saying that Balanchine’s ballets don’t “read” well to modern audiences—it all depends on the performance, after all. When you have the right cast, and the right conductor, everything becomes clear…. Just think of Tiler Peck in Valse Fantaisie, or this year’s cast of Divertimento No. 15 (almost), or Whelan in Concerto Barocco, or Stravinsky Violin Concerto last year, or Sara Mearns in Diamonds, or Jenifer Ringer as Sugarplum in Nutcracker or Emeralds. The ballets are so intricate and so well-constructed, that when they are well-danced they just speak for themselves. they don’t need to be “sold” by the dancers—they just have to do the steps. But actually doing the steps is a lot harder than it sounds.
    Of course, style is also a question of taste: certain people may just not share Balanchine’s esthetic, and may perhaps find it too cold, for example, not warm-blooded enough. They might prefer Ashton or Tudor or Petipa. And as for Black Swan, hasn’t enough been said already?

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