Ballerina Misty Copeland Recreates the Poses of Edgar Degas’ Ballet Dancers

“I am a man of motion,” trag­ic mod­ernist bal­let dancer Vaslav Nijin­sky wrote in his famous Diary, “I am feel­ing through flesh…. I am God in a body.” Nijin­sky suf­fered the unfor­tu­nate onset of schiz­o­phre­nia after his career end­ed, but in his lucid moments, he writes of the great­est pain of his illness—to nev­er dance again. A degree of his obses­sive devo­tion seems intrin­sic to bal­let.

Misty Copeland, who titled her auto­bi­og­ra­phy Life in Motion, thinks so. “All dancers are con­trol freaks a bit,” she says. “We just want to be in con­trol of our­selves and our bod­ies. That’s just what the bal­let struc­ture, I think, kind of puts inside of you. If I’m put in a sit­u­a­tion where I am not real­ly sure what’s going to hap­pen, it can be over­whelm­ing. I get a bit anx­ious.” As Nijin­sky did, Copeland is also “forc­ing peo­ple to look at bal­let through a more con­tem­po­rary lens,” writes Stephen Mooallem in Harper’s Bazaar.

Copeland has been can­did about her strug­gles on the way to becom­ing the first African Amer­i­can woman named a prin­ci­pal dancer at the Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre, includ­ing cop­ing with depres­sion, a leg-injury, body-image issues, and child­hood pover­ty. She is also “in the midst of the most illu­mi­nat­ing pas de deux with pop cul­ture for a clas­si­cal dancer since Mikhail Barysh­nikov went toe-to-toe with Gre­go­ry Hines in White Nights” (a ref­er­ence that may be lost on younger read­ers, but trust me, this was huge).

Like anoth­er mod­ernist artist, Edgar Degas, Copeland has rev­o­lu­tion­ized the image of the bal­let dancer. Degas’ bal­let paint­ings, “which the artist began cre­at­ing in the late 1860s and con­tin­ued mak­ing until the years before his death, in 1917, were infused with a very mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ty. Instead of ide­al­ized visions of del­i­cate crea­tures pirou­et­ting onstage, he offered images of young girls con­gre­gat­ing, prac­tic­ing, labor­ing, danc­ing, train­ing….” He showed the unglam­orous life and work behind the cos­tumed pageantry, that is.

Pho­tog­ra­phers Ken Browar and Deb­o­rah Ory envi­sioned Copeland as sev­er­al of Degas’ dancers, pos­ing her in cou­ture dress­es in recre­ations of some of his famous paint­ings and sculp­tures. The pho­tographs are part of their NYC Dance Project, in part­ner­ship with Harper’s Bazaar. As Kot­tke points out, con­flat­ing the his­to­ries of Copeland and Degas’ dancers rais­es some ques­tions. Degas had con­tempt for women, espe­cial­ly his Parisian sub­jects, who danced in a sor­did world in which “sex work” between teenage dancers and old­er men “was a part of a ballerina’s real­i­ty,” writes author Julia Fiore (as it was too in Nijinsky’s day).

This con­text may unset­tle our view­ing, but the images also show Copeland in full con­trol of Degas’ scenes, though that’s not the way it felt, she says. “It was inter­est­ing to be on shoot and to not have the free­dom to just cre­ate like in nor­mal­ly do with my body. Try­ing to re-cre­ate what Degas did was real­ly dif­fi­cult.” Instead, she embod­ied his fig­ures as her­self. “I see a great affin­i­ty between Degas’s dancers and Misty,” says Thel­ma Gold­en, direc­tor of the Stu­dio Muse­um in Harlem. “She has knocked aside a long-stand­ing music-box stereo­type of the bal­le­ri­na and replaced it with a thor­ough­ly mod­ern, mul­ti­cul­tur­al image of pres­ence and pow­er.”

See more of Copeland’s Degas recre­ations at Harper’s Bazaar.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Impres­sion­ist Painter Edgar Degas Takes a Stroll in Paris, 1915

Watch the 1917 Bal­let “Parade”: Cre­at­ed by Erik Satie, Pablo Picas­so & Jean Cocteau, It Pro­voked a Riot and Inspired the Word “Sur­re­al­ism”

Watch the Ser­pen­tine Dance, Cre­at­ed by the Pio­neer­ing Dancer Loie Fuller, Per­formed in an 1897 Film by the Lumière Broth­ers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • EB says:

    I clicked here with high hopes, but I have to say these pho­tos just fall flat for me. The first one almost slides into the uncan­ny val­ley and has ter­ri­ble light­ing that makes her look like a wax fig­ure. The sec­ond is fine, if unre­mark­able –– those stat­ues are extreme­ly engag­ing in per­son, but it’s entire­ly lost here. And the third one just looks like a gener­ic shot out of Vogue.

    But since you men­tion Degas and his rela­tion­ship with the bal­let dancers he paint­ed, I can’t help but link to one of my favorite Sis­ter Wendy pieces:

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.