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Can Misty Copeland Save American Ballet?

Ballet got more front page news coverage last year than it ever has in decades thanks to an embarrassing controversy involving one of the country's most high-profile dancers who, according to many, couldn't complete a routine. While many are panning the controversy as a disaster for ballet's present, it may be the key to rejuvenating ballet in the American artistic consciousness.

At the heart of the controversy is Misty Copeland, principal dancer for American Ballet Theater, one of the two most prestigious ballet companies in country. The company's first black principal dancer, Copeland is a shining example of American artistic success. Even so, faced with one of the most difficult traditional routines in one of the most traditionally celebrated ballets - the 32 fouette spins in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" - Copeland completed only 12.

Copeland's modification to the original routine - called "disastrous" on Youtube - has created an uproar in ballet circles. Rather than an intentional artistic modification, which itself would receive criticism, Copeland herself admitted on Twitter that her failure to complete the fouettes was because she couldn't do all 32. Some have pointed out that in the video of Copeland's routine, red flags in her positioning suggest she may have been struggling and had to abort.

For fans of American Ballet Theater, this revelation that a lead dancer for the company was unable to perform an admittedly difficult but technically critical element of one of its most prominent ballets was the controversy of all controversies. While the plethora of nasty comments it generated were unfair to Copeland, they highlighted just how important ballet enthusiasts view technical excellence.

While many have sought to spin the Copeland saga into a discussion of trade-offs between traditional excellence and artistic innovation, or even a defensive commentary about Copeland's own triumphant story as a woman of color, the criticisms about the incident as a technical failure have so far won the day, and have caused many to question whether American Ballet Theater's standards today are as elite as when Mikhail Baryshnikov wowed the artistic public in the late 1970s.

To some the controversy is a scandal with the potential to undermine a field of the arts that is already struggling to survive. Attendance at ballets has continued to drop, and many ballet companies in smaller cities are struggling to survive. A far cry from John F. Kennedy’s comment in the early 1960s that more Americans at the time attended symphonies than baseball games, the spectator arts of symphony, ballet, theater an opera are all facing a precarious future, today threatened by an unlimited pool of digitally accessible alternatives.

Saving Ballet

What the controversy has created for ballet is opportunity. Hardly a negative from the "all press coverage is good press coverage" perspective, a story about ballet made the front pages and enlivened the general public because it tapped into broader debates within the cultural zeitgeist about tradition and postmodernism, race and identity. That it raised questions about America’s most prestigious ballet company tapped into broader debates about America’s place in the world at large. And, uniquely for an art form that shuns any presumption that it can be measured objectively, the Copeland Saga could be reported and measured in numbers people could understand – the 32 fouettes in “Swan Lake” are one of ballet’s few quantifiable measuring sticks. Numbers suggest competition, and competition gets headlines.

Ballet should learn from the Copeland saga, as it offers lessons about how to save the struggling art form. For one, it should be a wake-up call that ballet needs quantifiable ways to communicate successful performances to the 99 percent of the general public that wasn’t trained in the fine details of what constitutes excellence in the field. Ballet can learn from figure skating in this regard, also an artistic event, and one whose underlying artism has not been undermined by the implementation of measurable scores for its top competitors. If ballet wants to capture the public imagination, it needs to create data points by which the public can understand and get excited about it.

For one, ballet should copy from figure skating and find a way to measure successful performances. It doesn’t matter what the scale is, or even what the metrics are, but those in the know should be able to communicate to the general public whether a particular show, or a particular company, performed successfully.

Relatedly, the Copeland saga raised many questions that captivated the public’s attention, and at the top of them was the question of what the incident said about whether ABT was upholding the standards of the country’s best ballet companies. To clarify such questions, and to push companies to aim for the utmost excellence in their product, ballet should copy from golf and the sports world and create ranking of its best dancers as well as its best companies. Copeland may have made a mistake in this instance, but is she actually atop the list of the country’s top ballerinas? The viewing public, who doesn’t get to see other dancers all across the country, would surely like to know.

If it’s not clear to ballet enthusiasts how one would rank companies or dancers, perhaps there’s an opportunity: open skills competitions in which dancers and companies could be tested against the most artistic and skills-intensive routines ballet demands. Imagine a contest in which the nation’s top ballerinas each had to perform the 32 fouettes, and were measured side-by-side against each other as to who could do them best. Ballet, for once, might make primetime television.

In addition, the buzz around the incident teaches us that ballet must stop trying to put on perfect performances. While the Copeland saga is disappointing, the fact that a dancer arguably failed in a critical moment of a high-profile show has raised interest in what will happen next. The risk of failure alone is a major reason many people may tune in from now on, and ballet should not be afraid to test its dancers in ways that sometimes can result in mistakes. These probabilities, actually, may be the key to keeping an audience engaged and on its toes. It’s not a disaster if a dancer fails, so long as it’s because the effort was sincere and the routine difficult.

To do this, ballet should experiment with pushing its dancers further. If 32 fouettes are an achieveable routine element for most dancers, why not try 48 to see which dancers truly are the most elite in the world at combining artistic creativity and technical skills? Ballet has an opportunity here to really wow the public. Even now, ballet companies are creatively experimenting with new techniques on stage: dancers flying across unseen wires mid-air, dancers performing difficult routines with water raining down on the stage from overhead, and others. These are the things that get people talking, and ballet should celebrate the intensity of its craft, not rum from it.

The Copeland saga teaches us that ballet has every opportunity to captivate the public consciousness, even as right now it's pushing against its own potential. To do so, it needs to find ways to celebrate the things that make it popular among its enthusiasts – namely great artistic performances and tremendous technical skills – in ways that can be measured and rewarded. To do so also, it must resist the temptation to hide from judgement under claims of itself as merely an art form. As modern art has taught us, when any art can be deemed successful, then all art becomes collectively unsuccessful. Ballet must resist this trap. Instead, it should hold itself to a standard of excellence, find ways to better communicate the message of excellence to the public, and captivate the imagination as so many art forms have by tapping into the public’s lust for numbers, competition, and the risk of controversy.

Through that lens, the Misty Copeland saga has hardly been a failure, but rather a window into how ballet can become a front-page art form.

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