For ballet dancers, Nutcracker season is a marathon: Most companies begin shows around Thanksgiving that run up until New Years Eve, often with ten shows a week. Dancers start in roles as children, and climb the ranks of the different roles as they grow up. And yet, everyone still remains enchanted by The Nutcracker — even Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) principal, who appears in the new Disney film adaptation of the ballet.
"I still have such a love for it, because even though I've been doing it for 25 years, it's still fresh," Copeland tells Refinery29 at a surprise screening for young dancers in New York City hosted by Under Armour. The movie, The Nutcracker And The Four Realms, is certainly a fresher take on the 1892 classic story. It features a feminist heroine, a sinister Mother Ginger, a vapid Sugar Plum Fairy, and of course a ballerina, who "just happens to be brown," Copeland says.
The experience traveling to select cities across the country and speaking to young audiences has been "incredible," Copeland says. "I understand why I'm important and mean so much to a lot of people," she says. "I have so much pride, and I take on the responsibility willingly. It’s so much bigger than me, and it's not about me, but what I represent."
Here, Copeland spoke to Refinery29 about her past ballet memories, the trend of ballet in film, and what it takes to make a woke version of The Nutcracker. Watch a video of Copeland surprising audiences below.
Conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What's your first Nutcracker memory? Mine is definitely watching the New York City Ballet version featuring Macaulay Culkin.
"[Nutcracker] literally was the first ballet I started learning, like right when I started dancing. So, I became Clara like eight months after I started dancing ballet. And I was on pointe, and I was dancing the role — it was crazy. The following year, I was given the role of Sugar Plum, so it all happened really quickly, and it was such a big, defining moment within my ballet training and career."
It cycles through over and over again: every 10 years, ballet is the 'new thing.' And you’re like, well it has been.
Nutcracker is rapidly approaching. How are you planning on getting through the season?
"As a principal, you’re not on stage every night like the corps de ballet, [who are] doing so many different roles, which — I've been there. New York City Ballet is known for The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center and doing a crazy amount of shows, but ABT’s never really been that. The Nutcracker has always been a touring thing for us, so we never do a large amount of shows. It’s more fun for us, whereas most people have like 65 shows. I still have such a love for it, because though I've been doing it for 25 years, it’s still fresh."
As iconic as The Nutcracker is, the ballet is not very woke. The plot is kind of screwed up and the second act borders on racist. Does it excite you to have a hand in rewriting ballet history?
"That’s like the majority of the ballets that we perform, because most of them were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s. So, [classical ballet] doesn’t necessarily reflect our society, and culture, and other cultures outside of the United States. I hadn't really thought about The Nutcracker in that way until this film came about. Even thinking about the way that Spanish and Arabian [dances are performed] — it’s so crazy. It’s almost like Blackface.
"The thing is, that's not really a focus of the movie. It's a very female-empowerment driven [movie], as well as an extremely diverse cast. I'm just so proud to be a part in this film, and also as a Black ballerina living on. To me, that's like so powerful for kids to see."
There have been quite a few ballet moments on screen this year, with Isabella Boylston dancing in Red Sparrow and the dance element in the new movie Suspiria. Do you think it's important that dancers get mainstream attention, whether it's through a Disney tale or otherwise?
"Absolutely. I'm so proud to voice and get behind giving all of these different genres and platforms more of an education on what it is we do, and respecting all that it takes to be what we are. It cycles through over and over again: every 10 years, ballet is the 'new thing.' And you’re like, well it has been. I hope that it’s not a trend, the fact that we have the focus on the ballet world.
"I had really close friends that played Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis's double in Black Swan, and Isabella playing Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow, and we're often in these situations where we’re treated like extras, and not really given the respect, and all that it takes to be healthy and prepared. Disney was so respectful of me. My manager really laid out that we have to have time dedicated to a warmup class before we start — because filming can be really spontaneous. Give us the same respect that actors get, because you're not gonna get the best product if we’re not properly prepared and rested."