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Misty Copeland Is On Pointe With Richard Corman

Misty Copeland is so absurdly popular right now that you probably know who she is, even if you don’t know who she is. Maybe the particulars of her stardom escape some people — like how last month Copeland was promoted to become the first African-American principal dancer in the prestigious
American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history — but almost everyone knows that there’s a black dancer jolting color and life into the staid world of ballet.

knows something about strong women defying expectations. His first big break was shooting
an iconic photo session with the
Material Girl herself
, right before the world discovered her in 1983. His latest project is a
photo book with Misty available starting July 31 called Misty
Copeland: Power and Grace
that aims to inspire and empower the next generation of young women.
And it all began on an old piano that mysteriously found its way underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

I know it was a bit
of a mystery when a piano showed up under the Brooklyn Bridge last year — were you the one who put it there for this shoot with Misty?

Nooo! [laughs]. But nobody knows how
that happened. A lot of people say it was some performance artist who put it there and was filming everyone’s interactions. All I know is I ride my bike everywhere and I was on the LES coming around and I saw this thing and it blew my mind because it was almost
a living, breathing object. This wet, soggy, ravaged Mason & Hamlin grand piano was sitting directly under the Brooklyn Bridge and for a couple of days I photographed it with a few friends and ultimately I realized I needed to do something iconic and special
because it wasn’t going to last. It was becoming destroyed and graffitied and pulled apart.

So I called my friend Misty who I
had photographed once, and we had maintained a distanced friendship but a friendship. It was in the heart of the ballet season and I sent her a picture of this piano and I said, I want you to picture you dancing on this, it will be magical. And she said absolutely.
She literally showed up at 5:30 in the morning pretty much alone with me and an intern. There was no fanfare, she did her own hair and makeup, and we photographed for 45 minutes until the sun rose up. We did 600 or 700 pictures and I fell in love with the
images and with her spirit. And I didn’t do anything with the pictures. I put them on my site. It wasn’t until later that I decided that I wanted to do something.

When she was promoted
to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre last month.

She is arguably the most famous dancer
in the world today. She is a visionary, she is a genius, unlike anyone. I saw her perform Swan Lake at the Met and it’s never been so colorful, I mean the audience. She has really opened the doors, the hearts and the minds of diversity for a world that was,
for all intents and purposes, white. She’s become this celebrity, and she’s become more accessible, especially to kids. She just sends this message loud and clear that if you work hard enough and you’re passionate enough, then it’s all possible. This is a
girl who has been told no for most of her young adult life and has just used that to push through, and hopefully the photographs show it.

I wanted to show that in a little
book that every little girl would put in her backpack. Her audience is not a wealthy audience. It’s a $12.99 book that you can roll up and put in your back pocket or backpack. For years I’ve created these books that are expensive and I don’t want to say pretentious
[laughs], but I guess they are. And we’re going to donate this and share it for the whole world to see.
That’s the dream. Misty has no time, she’s published two books and she’s not around. I had her blessing
to do [this book] and pulled quotes and did it on my own and showed it to her a couple of weeks ago. She emailed me and said she was in tears. It moved her.

You paired your photos
with quotes from Misty about the importance of hard work and perseverance. I was surprised to also see a quote about how she said she needed to be vulnerable to find success. How did you choose those quotes?

I looked at everything. Unless you’re
willing to take chances and drop your guard and become vulnerable, you can’t be open to accepting certain challenges and making mistake. And this is a woman who is fearless. My favorite quote is actually from her first instructor, who we got to write the introduction.
She describes Misty as “a ferocious learner.” I love that. I think that’s really what it’s all about. You need to be ferocious to want to learn and accept and become vulnerable so you can learn and grow. And this is a woman who is the real deal. She’s kind
and smart and brilliant and she’s an original in her own way.

You’ve photographed
a lot of athletes and specifically dancers, ballerinas. Why is that an interest for you?

I think there’s a real connection.
Dancers train as hard as any athletes, their schedule is not unlike athletes. It is so physically demanding, but in my opinion it is the highest form of art. Because you really get the physical, emotional and the intellectual content to display when you’re
sharing it with an audience. It blows my mind. And I’ve always said I used to play and watch a lot of basketball and when I see these athletes flying through the air or tiptoeing along the sidelines or diving for a loose ball or saving a home run, it’s so
beautiful. It is dance. And when I see Misty and other dancers fly through the air, and the physicality and what it takes now to be a principal dancer and play the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, just to get through it is… it’s like overtime in football
and basketball. And there is just that mental toughness that they have to have, and they’re always fighting injuries and they just have to cut through that and put it aside because the show must go on whether you’re playing for the New York Giants or the American
Ballet Theater.

A lot of pro athletes
like football players can yell and scream when they’re in pain, but you can’t really show pain in ballet.

One of Misty’s most important performances
was playing Stravinsky’s Firebird. She had an injury and a lot of people wouldn’t have performed. Her doctors said she might never perform again, but she did and she performed brilliantly and she now has metal plates. A lot of people didn’t think she’d come
back but she did with her fierce competitive spirit. You can’t teach someone that — you either have it or you don’t. I have so much respect for that kind of integrity and her kind of power and grace.

Was that a concern
that she would get hurt on the piano during your shoot?

It’s funny, yes, I jumped on the piano
first and jumped around to make sure the waterlogging hadn’t caused too much damage. I didn’t ask her to jump, but in retrospect that would have been amazing. She was mostly en pointe and she was amazing. When dancers are rehearsing they have to have a wooden
platform. There has to be give, so in some ways this was the perfect surface. I’ve had to lay down wood for them because it has to have a little bit of give like on a basketball court.

Is there anything
else you want people to know about the book?

I think the most important thing is
that it’s inspired me to move forward with this theme and template that I’m looking to photograph people who inspire me and also inspire and empower young people, especially girls. I think they need it now more than ever. And that’s what I’m feeling. My hope
is that the next five years of my life are doing these projects.

Buy Misty Copeland: Power and Grace here

Photography by Richard

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