'Solo in the City'
Misty Copeland's career has been a nasty Squabble Over Who is Best Suited to Develop Her Prodigious Ballet Skills.
This Summer, the Teenage Dancer Set Out to Create her Own Destiny on the Stages of New York City.
By ALLISON ADATO
photography by Cheryl Himmelstein
Tonight the girl has styled her hair like Juliet. Two braids are drawn away from her face like curtain ties, fastened in back over a cascade of waves. Outfitted in a silver tube top, a narrow skirt and this summer's adolescent imperative of clunky black sandals, she takes in the mahogany balconies of the Metropolitan Opera House and clutches at a program for the visiting Kirov Ballet. It is her first time at Lincoln Center, and she is here to see "Giselle." Like many classical ballets, it tells of a young woman too pure or passionate or ethereal to exist in this world--she must be transformed into a sylph or a swan or, in this case, a ghost. But the girl with warm, serious eyes that brighten mischievously when she smiles is not thinking about the story line. She is studying the choreography, executed with Russian perfectionism, and comparing each step with her own repertoire of moves: have it. . . . have it. . . . need it. . . . have it.
Three weeks later, in the less-grand surroundings of a college auditorium, the young dancer makes her New York debut, performing with the other teenage members of American Ballet Theatre's Summer Intensive program. "Sensuous, lyrical dancing," a New York Times critic will write of her work in a pas de deux set to music by Philip Glass. But while she enjoys the challenging new choreography, her dreams remain with Giselle and the other tutued principal roles of the classical stage. ABT, the company she hopes eventually to join, has never had a black Giselle. This girl with the mocha skin, the product of African, Italian and German heritage, might someday be the first.
Most dancers with professional promise were children who traded their diapers for pink tights. One who began training at the advanced age of 13 is a near-impossibility. But here is Misty Copeland, who walked into her first class in San Pedro just a little more than three years ago. Barely grazing five feet, looking younger than her 17 years, she has body proportions--small head, long neck, compact torso, long limbs--that make her a thoroughbred for ballet. After a month she was in pointe shoes, a toe-blistering reward for which the average girl waits at least two years. After three months, before she had ever attended a ballet performance, she was onstage. South Bay newspapers celebrated the home-grown star and major companies offered her scholarships. "I think she is born to be a dancer," says Lola de Avila, the former head of the San Francisco Ballet's school, where Misty studied the summer before last. Blessed with the rare combination of good genes, raw talent and the passionate attention of excellent instructors, Misty had seemed, at that moment, poised to reach her dream unimpeded.
When Misty was 13, her mom, Sylvia Delacerna, allowed her to
fill the hours between the last bell at school and the end of DelaCerna's
workday by hanging out at the Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro. Cynthia
Bradley, who ran a small local ballet school, gave a free weekly class
at the club, and one afternoon she saw the girl watching quietly from high
in the bleachers. She encouraged Misty to take a spot at the barre, wearing
socks and borrowed gym clothes. That session prompted Bradley to send notes
home to DelaCerna, offering Misty a full scholarship.
It was a generous offer and Misty--who still seems surprised when someone goes out of the way to help her--recognized the opportunity. But there was a problem. "I didn't like her from the beginning," DelaCerna says of Bradley. "Her elitist attitude, her snobbiness." DelaCerna had studied dance as a girl at an all-black school in Missouri but gave it up to start cheerleading, eventually for her hometown Kansas City Chiefs. She quit at 20 when she became pregnant with her first child. After eight years and three more children--Misty was then the youngest--DelaCerna fled a marriage gone bad and moved to California, where she now sells office equipment. She remarried and divorced two more times, having one child each with her second and third husbands ("I always wanted a lot of kids," she says, "so I was happy").
When Misty met Bradley, DelaCerna had just moved into the Sunset Inn, a residential motel in Gardena where she was sharing one bedroom with four of her six children (her eldest, Erica, lived on her own; the youngest, Cameron, was in his father's care). DelaCerna didn't have a car. Getting Misty to and from the studio meant that she or Erica would have to take a two-hour bus ride with her. After a few weeks, DelaCerna decided the lessons had to end.
Misty was inconsolable. Bradley, loath to let go of her promising new student, asked if the girl could move in with her in order to keep training. After initial resistance, DelaCerna agreed, giving Cindy and Patrick Bradley temporary care of her daughter. Misty moved into their condominium near the beach, sharing a bedroom with their 2-year-old son, Wolf. Soon Misty was lighting Hanukkah candles with Wolf. Her face began appearing in Bradley family portraits. "I made it clear that once I had a car, she'd be living at home," says DelaCerna. "But as that time drew closer they started saying, 'She can't live at home. You don't know how to care for a prodigy.' "
The Bradleys don't dispute having felt that way. As they tell it, they rescued Misty not only from a cramped motel room but from cultural deprivation. Cindy had been a working dancer with companies in San Diego, Virginia and Kentucky; her husband, a high school art teacher, also trained as a dancer and together they ran the school, taught classes and choreographed shows. They gave Misty books about ballet, showed her videos of Balanchine star Gelsey Kirkland and introduced her to shrimp scampi. "I used to say I was preparing her to have dinner with the Queen," says Cindy, curled on her couch with the family poodle, Misha.
When Misty saw the American Ballet Theatre's "Don Quixote" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, dancer Paloma Herrera became her idol, rivaled only by Mariah Carey. Misty would absorb every detail. "Paloma Herrera didn't take her partner's hand at the end of the pas de deux, she balanced on her own," she recalls, retrieving this bit of data not from the part of the brain that retains "Things Paloma Did" but rather, it seems, from the mental file labeled "Things I Must Do."
In the 10th grade, Misty left school in favor of independent study and devoted most of her time to dancing, tearing through a $45 pair of shoes every five days. Her supplies and expenses often were paid by patrons Liz and Dick Cantine. Liz had been Misty's drill team coach at Dana Middle School in San Pedro but her real love was ballet, and when she heard that Misty had begun dancing, she was thrilled. She became DelaCerna's advisor on the unfamiliar world of ballet and an intermediary as the relationship between DelaCerna and the Bradleys grew antagonistic.
DelaCerna came to resent the Bradleys even as she took pride in what her daughter accomplished with them. Cindy Bradley felt that once Misty moved in, DelaCerna became unconcerned with raising her daughter. "She never called the teacher during the year Misty did independent study," Bradley says. The Cantines, at least at first, thought the unorthodox living situation was Misty's best option and tried to persuade DelaCerna to let Misty stay with her teachers. "Even though Sylvia felt that Cindy looked down on her," says Dick Cantine, "we felt Cindy was good for Misty, and Misty was happy."
By Misty's own account, she was happy, particularly onstage. "I just loved it," she says. "I loved the applause." After only eight months of lessons she danced Clara in the "Nutcracker," and the press took note. "We were selling 2,000 tickets to a neighborhood company that had just been around for a couple of years. She was a draw," says Cindy Bradley. Bigger parts followed--Kitri in "Don Quixote" and a featured role in "The Chocolate Nutcracker," an African American telling of the story, narrated by actress/choreographer Debbie Allen. "She's an incredibly gifted ballerina. . . . She's a child who dances in her soul," says Allen. "I can't imagine her doing anything else."
The ballet establishment agreed. Six companies--including the Joffrey, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem--offered her places in their 1998 summer programs. She accepted a scholarship from San Francisco, and Cindy Bradley escorted her there. DelaCerna says that when she visited her daughter over Fourth of July weekend, the school's administration was surprised to learn that Misty had a guardian other than Cindy.
At summer's end, DelaCerna moved Misty home. Back at the Sunset Inn, the mother and daughter fought frequently. Once, Misty complained to Cindy that she hadn't had a vegetable in a week. Finally, DelaCerna decided it was time to look for new teachers.
On a Sunday, DelaCerna called Bradley to inform her of the decision. The following morning, Misty left for class with the Bradleys as usual, but instead of going to the studio, they met with a lawyer who could facilitate Misty's emancipation, a procedure common among young actors who want to control their earnings. Emancipation would give her the legal rights of an adult. She no longer would need her mother's permission to dance with the Bradleys. She could choose with whom she wanted to live. "We discussed it as a family," says Bradley. "I would have adopted her if she had wanted."
On the advice of an attorney Bradley had found for her, Misty called her sister Erica from a friend's house and said she wouldn't be coming home that night. DelaCerna panicked. The police contacted the Bradleys, and three days later Misty was at a station in Gardena trying to convince them that she hadn't been kidnapped and held against her will, that she did indeed want to be emancipated. The police, however, returned the girl to DelaCerna, who immediately asked for a restraining order to prohibit the Bradleys from contacting Misty. Then she hooked up with attorney Gloria Allred. Before a judge, Misty's emancipation request was withdrawn and the Bradleys agreed not to contact their former student. "I didn't really like to talk to my mom. I cried every night," Misty said a few months later. "The police wanted us to go to therapy." That never happened.
Misty says she regrets never telling the Bradleys how grateful she is that Cindy encouraged her dancing. Meanwhile, the Bradleys' son, Wolf, was heartbroken, and his parents were at a loss to explain the separation to the boy. But their own grief, the Bradleys say, was not just for Misty's career. In their home, Cindy says, "Misty was blossoming and starting to become a whole person."
DelaCerna, who now had a car, moved the family to a two-bedroom apartment in San Pedro, where the only evidence of their ordeal was a framed picture of Allred holding up Misty's hand outside a courthouse. But inside her bedroom closet, hidden from her mother's view, Misty stored relics of her former life--pictures from a vacation to San Diego with the Bradleys and a Nutcracker doll Patrick made her. She was now forbidden to see not only the Bradleys but also the friends she had made at their studio. Her mother allowed one exception. The pink invitations were hand-lettered in crayon but carried typed enclosures: "Misty has anxiously awaited her 'Sweet 16 Birthday' for many months. . . . In the interest of Misty enjoying her day, we. . . . ask that you not discuss any recent events and legal matters regarding. . . . Misty's decision to remain with her family. . . ."
As the family tried to put the episode behind them, Hollywood noticed the press coverage and swarmed. DelaCerna hired an entertainment attorney, Stuart Berton, to field film offers. The money would mean a lot to the family. But as Berton pointed out, there was a problem: How would such a movie end? With a closing shot at the Met as roses are tossed at Misty's feet? Or with a bittersweet sequence from an ordinary girl's "normal" life, far removed from the world of dance? "I don't think they should do any movie until my career is over," Misty confides. "I've told my mom I don't want to, but she says we should."
After the court battle, over dinner at Denny's, DelaCerna sounded at first as if she and Misty agreed. ("I don't want Misty to do anything she doesn't want to do.") In minutes, however, she was urging her daughter to appear in "The Chocolate Nutcracker" again. Misty protested. "But they'll pay you," said her mother. Misty took the part and earned $500. To coordinate bookings, DelaCerna enlisted a family friend to act as her manager. ("All wrong," said Gerald Arpino, artistic director of the Joffrey. "She'll become a little gypsy. She'll learn the things that are commercially eye-catching and never know the art of performing as a great ballerina.")
"This is pretty much it," Misty sighed back then. "Dance,
school, sleep. Independent study was a much easier schedule. But I don't
think my mom liked it." True enough. Misty enrolled in San Pedro High School
again and dance classes were confined to the afternoons. Some who had seen
her perform, including Arpino, worried that it might not be enough. "Someone
as talented as Misty now is, you protect her and educate her," Arpino says.
"You can mine a huge diamond, but all the facets have to be brought out."
Lola de Avila, who taught Misty in San Francisco, had recommended "a big school, with a big company." Instead Misty had signed up at a well-regarded little school, Diane Lauridsen's Ballet Centre in Torrance. She quickly made friends with two dancers--one of whom, amazingly, also appears to have the rare potential to someday dance with a major company.
Between classes at Lauridsen's on a cool fall day, Misty and her pals Kaylen Ratto and Ashley Ellis shared a lunch of salads and contraband chocolate. The night before had been high school homecoming, but none of the dancers had gone. When they spoke of boys, it was usually about who was a good pas de deux partner and who might drop a girl during a lift. Ashley, who has been dancing since age 5, has a similar build to Misty's: sinewy legs that look like a skeletal-muscular system drawing in an anatomy book. Kaylen's body is softer, but thin by nearly all standards outside of modeling or dance. "I don't have what they have," says Kaylen of her friends' natural gifts. "I'm debating whether to go to college." In most circles, going to college is a measure of achievement; among hopeful young dancers, it is what happens when you don't make the cut.
Early this year, concerns that Misty wasn't training enough were allayed. She tried out for summer programs and, again, was admitted everywhere she auditioned, and this time American Ballet Theatre came through with a scholarship. Each summer thousands of young dancers spend weeks in intensive company schools around the country. At ABT's summer program, Misty and Ashley would be thrown in with the best of the best. The session is not billed as an audition, but the students know that, while rare, it isn't unheard of for a dancer to be asked to stay on and join the studio company, the equivalent of a farm team for the majors.
The Cantines offered to help Misty's mom pay for her flight to New York. Because she had to be there before the end of the school semester, Misty arranged to take all five of her final exams on one day. Then she packed her three bags with supplies for six weeks, including 10 pairs of pointe shoes. "I'm a little apprehensive," DelaCerna said about sending her daughter to New York City. "A friend of a friend will pick her up from the airport, and she's staying with nuns at a residence for young women."
For her part, Misty wanted nothing more than to meet Paloma Herrera, who had joined the company eight years ago, when she was Misty's age. Asked if she would stay if the company invited her, Misty said, "I think I would, yeah." Presented with the same hypothetical, her mother said, "No, she wants to finish high school, which I don't think is a bad idea. I read somewhere that a lot of people feel Paloma Herrera was moved too quickly."
ABT does not provide dormitory housing for its summer students,
so Misty and Ashley live in the pink-walled convent of the Carmelite Sisters
of St. Joseph, on West 14th Street in Greenwich Village. Kaylen, who was
accepted at the nearby Joffrey Ballet school, also takes a room there.
When one of Misty's friends from Cynthia Bradley's studio turns up at Joffrey,
she moves in, too. Dinners of hearty Mexican fare are communal, as is the
one telephone. "Meeess-teee!," a nun hollers when a call comes in. Misty's
Mariah Carey posters share space with the resident plaster madonnas.
The ABT studios are a 15-minute walk from the convent and a world away from the gentrified strip mall environs of Lauridsen's school. Climbing three flights of a dingy marble and baroque iron staircase, Misty joins the other 149 students, ranging in age from 13 to 19, who spend seven hours a day in class, wearing name tags pinned to their leotards. At the beginning there is a palpable competition among the dancers--nothing brutal, just that you notice other girls counting the revolutions in your pirouettes. "But that didn't hold on at all," says Misty, who sometimes goes out at night in groups as large as 20. "No one was snobby." The faculty, composed mainly of former ABT dancers, includes Gelsey Kirkland. Though Misty is thrilled to be taught by the legendary ballerina, she finds Kirkland intimidating, and "strange" for banning the applause that traditionally ends every ballet class. One day she sees Paloma Herrera talking on a pay phone near the locker room. Discreetly, Misty sidles up to her. "She was just a little taller than me," she reports gleefully.
Between classes one morning, Misty is splayed in a horizontal split, rolling forward on her elbows and placing her cheek on the floor near her omnipresent water bottle. Another girl has her foot so high over her head that it seems to no longer belong to her body. Two others move through a series of contortions while snacking from a box of Teddy Grahams and singing selections from "Grease." While changing from pointe shoes back to flat ballet slippers, Misty is approached by a tall, reedy boy. He hangs an arm around her shoulders and earnestly offers up a site-specific pickup line: "I was talking to this teacher who says we should partner together." Misty nods politely and smiles. When he leaves, she turns to Ashley and says, laughing, "He's such a dork! He's, like, a foot taller than me! He is totally lying!"
On their weekends off, Misty and her friends attempt to re-create the mall culture they are used to by seeking out one shopping center in Manhattan. They don't set foot in a museum or see the Statue of Liberty. Early on, she is confused by New York's ubiquitous jaywalkers and keeps looking for crosswalk buttons on the light posts. But by mid-July she is throwing herself into traffic with the natives on her way to get lunch at the salad bar of a corner grocery. She finds that she likes the independence of walking everywhere.
By the second week of classes, the recital has been cast. Ashley lands a solo in a Balanchine work set to Tchaikovsky. In addition to the Philip Glass pas de deux, Misty is chosen to perform a principal variation from the 19th century ballet "Paquita." One day between rehearsals, John Meehan, the director of ABT's studio company, calls her into his office. He tells her that they are interested in having her come back next summer after she's graduated. If she does, she could then stay on to join his smaller second company. She thanks him, containing her excitement as best she can--which is to say not very well--then calls her mom.
But good news is met by bad. DelaCerna tells Misty that she won't be able to visit her in New York as they had planned. She can't afford to leave work, and the air fares are higher than she expected. Her roommates' mothers have all spent a week in town, and Misty is upset that hers can't. "I know she was disappointed," says her mother. "But she's a little trouper, as usual."
At Meehan's recommendation, Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director, has begun watching Misty. He's impressed. "She has what I call 'the Package,' " he says. "Very beautiful body proportions, musicality and coordination. People usually have two of the three, but she has all three." Those qualities are in evidence when Misty takes the stage for the end-of-summer recital.
Unlike many of the nascent dancers, she does not appear to be concentrating on the upcoming steps. At this stage, there are still a few who instinctively stick out their tongues or gnaw their lips while attempting to maintain balance in a pirouette. Misty summons choreography to her--turns, jetes, impossibly high extensions. The pas de deux shows off her facility both at fluid, lyrical dance and the equally demanding staccato footwork of petit allegro. By intermission, a sole of her last pair of shoes has cracked, offering little support. She mends it with Krazy Glue and closes the show with the principal's variation from "Paquita," a flirtatious, Spanish-tinged number. This is a girl who still giggles demurely when she talks about boys. But here, in the spotlight, she is confident, charismatic, sure of her charm. Offstage, her peers whoop and cheer.
When the performance ends, many of the kids are met by their parents or other well-wishers bearing roses. Misty does not receive flowers. She is packing her duffel bag, snapping photos and trading addresses with friends when McKenzie asks to see her. She scampers down the metal stairs from the green room. McKenzie sweetens the earlier offer: Forget waiting until next summer; join ABT's studio company right now. "What do you think?"
Misty is struck silent. Crossing the threshold from student to professional is now just a matter of saying yes. "You could see the wheels turning behind her eyes," McKenzie says. "She was trying not to squirm. It was sweet as hell." But besides "thank you," all she manages to say is, "I have to ask my mother."
Her mother has questions of her own. Misty recalls the queries: "Would I get paid? How would they arrange schooling for me? And where would I live? I didn't have the answers." What Misty does know is that now she has an inside track to join the company that has been the focus of her ambition for the last three years. And, yes, she soon learns, ABT will make living arrangements for her, will see that she finishes the equivalent of her senior year, and will pay her to perform and tour. All she has to do now, it seems, is persuade her mother.
"I'd like to keep her at home," says DelaCerna. "She was gone for so long and I'd like her to have another year with her brothers and sisters." But where she once stood firm on family, school and a normal adolescence, now DelaCerna is unsure. "I've listened to what they are saying about Misty and I'm going to let her make up her own mind."
Three times Misty asks McKenzie for just a few more days to decide. If she takes the offer, it is possible that she might move up to the main company in as little as six months. "I never, ever thought they would ask me," Misty says. "If I stay, I'll get a lot more chances to perform, and the tour is coming to Palos Verdes, which is right near home."
But she'll miss the birth of her sister Erica's baby. "They're naming her Mariah," she says incredulously. "I wanted to name my baby Mariah." Then there is the prom, and graduation. "Also," she says, "it would be scary living alone." For several more days she agonizes. Then she turns McKenzie down. "I hope," she says, "they still want me next year."
On her last night in New York, Misty and a pack of 20 friends eat at a tacky Mexican restaurant called Senor Swanky's and roam Greenwich Village until 3 a.m. She crashes at a friend's apartment for two hours before hailing a taxi back to the convent. By 7, she is at the airport, having left behind three pairs of used pointe shoes, which students had asked her to autograph as souvenirs. She sleeps the whole flight home.
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Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times
December 5, 1999