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American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Firebird’ looks to Misty Copeland

March 4, 2012

The ballerina will appear in Alexei Ratmansky’s reimagining of the work, coming to Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

By Diane Haithman, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Misty Copeland, left, and Copeland in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Arguably, ballet’s famous birds are the swans of “Swan Lake” — Odette and Odile, White Swan and Black Swan, respectively. But running — flying? — close behind them is the magical Firebird, namesake of the 1910 Stravinsky classic which is being reimagined by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre. Ratmansky’s “The Firebird” has its world premiere March 29-April 1 at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

This is ABT’s fourth production of “The Firebird,” originally choreographed by Michel Fokine. Company soloist Misty Copeland, 29, is too young to have seen those versions — but remembers as a young dance student in Southern California being mesmerized by videotapes of fragile ballerina Gelsey Kirkland in the role for New York City Ballet in the 1970s.

Remembering Kirkland is one reason Copeland is so excited to be one of three dancers for whom Ratmansky created the Firebird role, as well as premiering it on her home turf. Natalia Osipova and Isabella Boylston will also perform the role in Costa Mesa.

“It’s incredible to have a ballet created on you, especially a ballet with so much history,” Copeland says. Seeing promotional photos of herself in the traditionally red Firebird costume and headdress, she said, “reminded me of photos of Gelsey Kirkland when she was just 16, premiering her first ‘Firebird,’ with [New York City Ballet co-founder and “Firebird” choreographer] George Balanchine standing next to her.”

Copeland is the rare ballet dancer who has achieved notable status, largely for having been chosen by Prince to appear in a music video and perform with him on tour. She also connects with young minority ballet dancers because she is ABT’s first black female soloist in two decades.

Never far from her mind is the significance of her presence onstage with one of the world’s top ballet troupes. “A lot of people think of it as me playing this race card, but I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t talk about the fact that I’m one of the few black dancers,” she says.

Adds Copeland, “They don’t know until they’ve seen these young girls’ faces, girls who have been told they will never be accepted into this world because of the color of their skin. This is today — I speak to 7-year-olds who have been told this. If I had been told this, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

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Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times

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