You saw it here first

American Ballet Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, September 3

IT’S always a big deal when a dancer makes her debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. It’s a bigger deal when that dancer is Misty Copeland, the first African-American in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history to be cast as Odette. It shouldn’t be so, but it is.

Copeland, 31, has waited a long time for this. She has earned it, and yesterday afternoon claimed it.

Alexandre Hammoudi and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, Act III. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Alexandre Hammoudi and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, Act III. Photo: Darren Thomas

No matter what the role, deep within every dancer’s body are aspects of the story she is telling. They are an inextricable part of it. Copeland is tiny, but strong and womanly. She is not frail. Her Odette, then, instantly reminds one that swans are birds of considerable power as well as grace. Although she has been made a captive she is not a victim. We are reminded, too, that Odette is not just a swan. She is the Swan Queen.

Copeland’s opening scene (apart from the brief prologue showing how Von Rothbart tricked Odette and enslaved her) was therefore individual, although a little too largely played on this first outing. But in her magisterial arms and shoulders, so evocative of a magnificent creature’s wingspan, there is much promise. Already one could see Copeland has a clear and personal idea of Odette’s character.

The pas de deux that follows was ravishing. The first slow section was expressed as if one long tender sigh and the rapport between Copeland and her Prince Siegfried – Alexandre Hammoudi, a fellow soloist also making a role debut – was electrifying. The two looked wonderful together, with perhaps just one proviso: Hammoudi is tall and Copeland is not, so even when she is on pointe she has to tilt her head back to make the all-important eye contact, thus shortening the line of her neck and making it less lovely.

Hammoudi undoubtedly would have wanted to dance more cleanly than he did. Although his partnering and his connection with Copeland were tremendously satisfying and while he created a legible, appealing character, his finishes were often blurred and his line lacked drama.

Copeland, on the other hand, etched so many moments vividly and passionately, whether filling all the music with plush legato phrasing or commanding attention with sharp accents. At the end of the second act, for instance, Odette joins the flock of swan maidens and, standing centre stage, does a series of swift rising and subsiding steps, pushing away strongly from the ground and beating her feet in the air. She is a creature of both earth and sky. (When Odette meets Siegfried she may be in human form but of a most provisional kind.) Then Odette freezes for a moment on pointe, one leg pulled up at an angle with foot touching the knee. She may be still, but is highly alert. Copeland was arresting here: it was the kind of punctuation that made the audience hungry for what came next. There were many other such pleasures.

Given Copeland’s gifts, Odile would seem to hold no terrors for her. Indeed not. Her dominion was amply demonstrated in a technical sense, but it was the theatrical detail that was so enjoyable – the avian stretches of the neck, the seductive expression, the sparkling eyes and, to top it off, the brief but super-sexy stroking of Siegfried’s chest that clinched the deal between them.

A short time later Copeland reappeared as Odette, as in Kevin McKenzie’s production the action shifts immediately from Act III’s ballroom to the lakeside Act IV. At this season’s opening night Iast week I found the denouement far too rushed, but Copeland and Hammoudi seemed to stretch time and were profoundly moving as Siegfried desperately sought Odette’s forgiveness for his betrayal of her. The audience stood and cheered lustily, and rightly.

This was unfortunately Copeland’s only Odette in Brisbane but it was a piece of ballet history all the same, and enough to make the heart burst with joy.

This performance, it must be pointed out, happened on a weekday matinee in Brisbane. American Ballet Theatre history may have been in the making, but it was a long, long way from America. Tucked away, you might think. Certainly the audience seemed largely unaware of the occasion. And perhaps you could argue that ensured people were thrilled by the performance, not the symbolism – not such a bad thing.

Speaking to me the next day Copeland acknowledged it was easier to make such an important debut away from the eyes of the New York critics, as she did with Coppelia. Now she’s got a Swan Lake under the belt before she performs the role – which one hopes she does soon – before her home audience and her loved ones.

I would mention, too, that the sublime Alina Cojocaru also had an out-of-hemisphere debut as Odette, in Sydney when the Royal Ballet visited in 2002. It’s a performance I’ve never forgotten, as I won’t Copeland’s.

Copeland appears in the ABT’s second Brisbane program, Three Masterpieces, in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita. And before that, tonight in the past de trois in the final Swan Lake.

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