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A Century of Times Dance Photos, Through the Lens of Misty Copeland

Category: Art & Culture,Dance

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There’s one photograph from The New York Times archives that stands out to Misty Copeland. It’s a black-and-white image of a group of young ballerinas, boys and girls, their dark skin accented by bright tights and tutus.

“They look so uncomfortable,” Ms. Copeland said in a recent interview. “In ballet, we’ve never been told there was a place for us to fit in. You can see that within this image.”

The “tension and awkwardness” that Ms. Copeland said she saw in the photo is familiar to her. She was the American Ballet Theater’s first black female principal dancer. Last month, when she visited The Times to serve as a guest editor of a special print section featuring dance images from our archives, she saw those threads throughout dance history.

The section is the latest from Past Tense, which highlights stories and photographs from The Times’s archives. Veronica Chambers, who leads the team, said that of the 6 million photos in the archives, at least 5,000 are dance-related. A dedicated section was a natural fit, as was the choice of Ms. Copeland as its guest editor, Ms. Chambers said.

“We really wanted to emphasize that dance is something that so many people do in their day-to-day lives, and make it feel like a celebration,” Ms. Chambers said.

The images in the section range widely: formal ballet classes, 1970s school dances, impromptu street dancing and, of course, Studio 54 in New York City. At a TimesTalks event this month, Ms. Copeland discussed the section with Monica Drake, an assistant managing editor at The Times, and explained how her research of dance influences her performance today.

In the past, Ms. Copeland has used images to research dance and to get ideas for her own work. That eye for detail came through in the selection process, Ms. Drake said.

“So while I saw cute children learning to dance, she saw stiff children who looked uncomfortable in their clothing,” she said.

“Because dance is an inherently visual performing art, photography is especially successful at catching a glimpse of it,” Ms. Drake added. “In looking at these images, we are seeing societal shifts in performance.”

While sifting through the archives, Ms. Copeland said she was most drawn to the quiet moments between the striking poses, thrilling twirls and grand jet├ęs.

“As a dancer, a lot of students are often thinking of the pose or image or results,” Ms. Copeland said. “But as much as life and being a professional dancer is about the journey on the stage, it’s the in-between moments that make those poses so powerful. You can see what they might have been feeling, create in your mind what you think that might be.”

Ballet is often characterized as a pursuit of perfection, she said. “I think it’s amazing when you don’t see that.”

Ms. Copeland was naturally drawn to groups of people while looking at the photos — to communities. And it’s no wonder; Ms. Copeland said the aspiration to be part of something bigger than herself is what drew her to ballet in the first place.

I stumbled into it, but it’s what made me love it and why I love it still today,” she said.

The photos not only offered historical reference, but also influenced context for her own form, she said.

“It’s hard these days; my generation is so used to moving from the waist down, this isolated release of our lower backs, twerking,” she said, laughing. “Not that I’ve ever done it.”

In ballet, it’s more about the “subtle upper-body motions, that’s not letting go of your center and holding on to that connection of ribs down to the hips,” she added. “It’s fascinating to see things in nightclubs or a school dance, to see the interaction and connection with different people.”

There was something about the authentic, free energy of the candid photos that Ms. Copeland hopes ballet can harness in the future. She is wary of the idea that ballet is a dying art form or becoming irrelevant. For it to keep moving forward, she said, it’s important for dancers and choreographers to “stay authentic to ourselves.”

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