Book Review: ‘Life in Motion’ by Misty Copeland

A-Life-in-Motion

The first and only black soloist to ever grace the stage in the American Ballet Theater’s history has come out with her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina.” I pre-ordered it just in time to arrive before my surgery last month and gobbled it up quickly as I lied in my hospital bed, recuperating. It turned out to be a wonderful choice–a fantastically written account of the stormy childhood that Copeland experienced, moving from one stepfather to another, from motel to motel, having hardly enough to eat, and finally stumbling into a ballet class at the age of 13 without really knowing what ballet was all about.

As fate had it, Copeland found herself plunged into the magical world of classical ballet. To her surprise, she was told that she had the natural physique and talent for this “foreign” art form. Within three weeks of training she was en pointe–and doing it well; and within a few short years she started dancing professionally for ABT, her dream company. The road from there on was not all smooth and glittery. Quite the contrary. Reading her struggles was heart-wrenching, to say the least. At the same time it gave me a great sense of encouragement. My struggles could hardly match hers, although it would be unfair to have any kind of comparison as I am not in the professional ballet world–only an amateur adult student. Still, having just had a major surgery, not knowing when my body would be back in shape again to step into the ballet studio, her perseverance through one hardship after another gave me tremendous inspiration.

In the book she has written in great length what it takes to be a true ballerina. Here is one of my favorite passages:

“It takes so many things to be a great ballerina: talent, strength, the ability to pick up choreography and then turn on an inner light when you perform. Having the right combination is the difference between being an artist who can capture the nuances of light in a watercolor and one who paints by number. I don’t think that most people realize that.”

Most of us ballet students and dancers have a rough idea of what it takes to become a professional dancer. However, I think few of us have any real idea of how much harder it is to be black in this predominantly white world of classical ballet. I thought I knew–until I read this book. Nothing prepared me for the kind of hardship Copeland had gone through.

I will leave you the reader to find out the details from her book. But let me just finish off this review with another passage that I like:

“I rarely get angry when I think about my childhood, wishing for what we could have been if we’d had more of a nurturing home environment. It made us all strong fighters, primed to push through the toughest of struggles. But I do get frustrated with people who experienced relatively ideal lives and yet don’t appreciate what they’ve had. Performing with ABT, I have sometimes overheard my dance mates complaining about going to the same vacation spot with their families, going on and on about how they’d rather be sunbathing than rehearsing, or how bad we have it at ABT versus City Ballet, or some other inconsequential thing. I would think about all that I had been through, what I had to navigate and overcome to stand on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera. What are these people fussing about?

Even though I do not relate to her particular experience as a professional dancer, I do relate to her feeling of appreciation of having become a stronger person through pushing through a lot of tough struggles. It is here where I find the greatest resonance.

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Margot Fonteyn Autobiography

“Margot Fonteyn Autobiography” (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1976)

Fonteyn Autobiography Collage

In Fonteyn’s autobiography, her voice reflects a cheerful personality, always looking at the world with a sense of innocent wonder, gratitude and humor. Sure enough the Prima Ballerina Absoluta had endured much hardship in her life, ranging from her physical pain as a result of dancing so much and so hard, to the tough marriage with her Panamanian politician husband who was shot in a coup d’etat and became paralyzed the rest of his life. Seldom do we hear any whining or complaints from her account. I imagine her to be an extraordinarily strong woman. I was a little surprised she did not give as much coverage on her relationship with Rudolph Nureyev, her epic stage partner, as I expected. But we did get a good glimpse of how it was for her to work with the many male dance partners she had throughout her long and luminous career.

Being a Chinese, I especially enjoyed reading her accounts of her early life in Shanghai and Tianjin! She even visited Hong Kong in her childhood and met a tall Norwegian in Repulse Bay who told her all about Russian ballet. Here is an excerpt:

“The following summer that I spent on the beach in Hong Kong was the most important of my childhood because I literally lived in the sea from morning till night, swimming and diving until water was the most natural element for me to inhabit. A tall Norwegian, who had spent several years as a diplomat in Russia before the Revolution, was my great friend. He was a handsome man, big-boned but lean and well-preserved with the blue eyes of a sailor, and he loved dancing. At every tea dance in the Repulse Bay Hotel we waltzed and foxtrotted and danced the paso doble, he so tall and me a little shrimp of eleven years, but in perfect harmony. I could say it was my first dancing partnership. He had loved the ballet in St. Petersburg and Moscow, knew about all the ballerinas and talked to me for hours on the beach about Tamara Karsavina in Sleeping Beauty. My uninformed mind could not visualize the delights he was describing, as I did not know at that time what a big ballet company was. Many years later I danced in Oslo, where I got a letter that said: “I wonder can the famous Margot Fonteyn be the little Peggy I used to know in Hong Kong?” Enclosed was a snapshot of us sitting together on the beach, and written across the back were the words, This is Peggy, she swims like a fish and dances like a ballerina. It was dated Summer, 1930.”

 I was surprised to hear about Fonteyn’s insecurity regarding her technique and performances. In fact, she had to overcome some physical limitations in order to dance properly. Her humility is something that I did not expect of a Prima Ballerina Absoluta and a Dame.

Overall, a really enjoyable book.