LOS ANGELES -- Misty Copeland has far-transcended the rarefied world of ballet, appearing as a guest judge on "So You Think You Can Dance," touring with Prince and serving as the face of Estee Lauder's Modern Muse fragrance -- not to mention attracting more than 1.5 million Instagram followers. There's even a Misty Copeland Barbie doll.
As the first African-American woman promoted to principal dancer in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theatre, Copeland had drawn new and younger audiences to dance.
The San Pedro native will return home this holiday season to appear in ABT's production of "The Nutcracker" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Copeland will dance the role of Clara/Princess, in three performances choreographed by ABT artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky.
"The Nutcracker" is the first full-length ballet Copeland appeared in onstage -- an experience that she calls "magical." Returning to Southern California is no less so, she said in this edited conversation.
Q: You've popularized ballet, and it's been suggested you're revitalizing -- or "saving," as Jimmy Kimmel once put it -- the classical dance world. Isn't that a lot of pressure?
A: I take it all with a grain of salt. I understand that I'm getting people interested in ballet. I'm happy to be able to represent the ballet. But I am, by no means, ballet. I'm a representation, a window for people to come in and be introduced to the broader world of ballet. That's what I feel my duty is: I'm a vessel. And I'm lucky to be a small faction of ballet history.
Q: Your promotion, in 2015, to principal dancer broke barriers. Is ballet evolving, do you think? Or is it still fairly exclusive?
A: Yes. I think the fact that me, a black woman, is what has kind of introduced a lot of people to the ballet world is huge. It's definitely forced a lot of ballet companies to address the issue of the lack of diversity.
You know -- and I constantly say this -- even if it's not something that they've ever wanted to do, the world is looking in now. More so than ever before. The ballet world is so secluded and lives in this bubble, and it's easy to get away with a lot. So with the attention I've brought to ballet, I think they're definitely being forced to make some changes.
Q: You've been an athletic and artistic role model for so many young people. Who do you look to for inspiration?