2 African Americans make history performing lead roles in Washington Ballet's 'Swan Lake'

Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland. (WJLA photo)

WASHINGTON (WJLA) – In an historic move, two African-American ballet dancers performed the lead roles in the Washington Ballet's "Swan Lake" Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center. It's the first time this has been done in a major ballet company and challenges the idea of what principal roles in classical ballets should look like.

Misty Copeland, 32, danced the role of Odette/Odile and 28-year-old Brooklyn Mack danced the role of Prince Siegfried. Copeland is a soloist with the American Ballet Theater in New York City. Mack is a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet.

Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre asked Copeland to perform the role last year, when she was visiting D.C.

She says he told her, "I think it's time the ballet world sees someone like you dancing the lead in a very iconic ballet."

Copeland's response: "I felt like it couldn't be a more appropriate place. All the work Septime has done, diving in and making changes with the ballet world and diversifying it. It's not just this gimmick of this time with ‘Swan Lake’ and Brooklyn and I. He's really been out there doing the dirty work for 15 years or so. I just felt like this is an incredible opportunity and place for two African-American dancers to be doing this for the first time."

The roles are quite challenging, but Copeland and Mack say working together has been effortless.

"I think it's been pretty organic and natural and quick," Mack said.

As for performing the roles of the black and white swan, Copeland said, "It takes so much out of you, not just physically. It's one of the most physically demanding roles in the repertoire. I feel like I've always connected with being that more fiery character, so I assumed Odette would be the one I connected with more, the black swan. But I've just fallen in love with Odile and I think the challenge for me, because I've been viewed, when you hear something over and over again from critics or the audience that you are not the soft, sylphlike dancer, it forces you to want to be that. It's been an amazing challenge and I can't wait to do it and show everyone."

This is Copeland's American debut of the role. In September 2014, she performed the role in Australia with the American Ballet Theater. She will reprise the role with the American Ballet Theater in New York City this summer.

Copeland had an unusual path to ballet. She didn't begin taking ballet classes until age 13, at a Boys & Girls Club in California. Her instructor noticed how quickly she grasped complicated technique and moves, as well as her natural ability to move. Copeland was en pointe within three months, a feat that takes most ballerinas years to master. In 2001, Copeland became a professional, joining American Ballet Theater's Corps de Ballet. And in 2007, she became the third African-American soloist at ABT, and the first in two decades. Her goal now is to become the first ever African-American principal dancer with ABT.

Copeland has skyrocketed to fame with her success at ABT. She also has an Under Armour endorsement, she's performed on stage with Prince, and she wrote a New York Times Bestselling memoir.

Through it all, Copeland has also been outspoken about increasing diversity in the ballet world.

And yet, she admits "I never saw ‘Swan Lake’ in my future, so this is absolutely a dream come true. Just not having many ballerinas to see yourself through, it's hard to envision doing such an iconic role."

With Thursday night’s performance, she hopes many young African-American ballet dancers are watching.

"Hopefully there will be many looking to me and seeing themselves through me," she said.

Mack and Copeland have taken time during their career to encourage young minority ballet dancers and show them what is possible.

"At one time I was that kid looking up to somebody or trying to find someone to look up to," Mack said. "Not having anyone really who looks like you to look at can be disconcerting, at the least. I'm just hoping this performance will help to provide more hope and reinforcement for the youth. It's very important to give back and inspire this next generation, because that's the future. It shouldn't end with us. It has to keep going and grow and get better."

On behalf of the kids they're hoping to inspire, Copeland and Mack hope the world takes note of their sold-out performances this week in Washington.

"It's incredible that people are interested. They're interested in seeing something different. And I think that says a lot and I think the ballet world needs to take notice of that," Copeland concluded.

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