Misty Copeland is the first African-American soloist in the last two decades at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. But the road she had to travel in order to fulfill her dreams was not an easy one.
“Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” her new memoir, shares Copeland’s inspiring journey to become a world-class ballerina. She will be in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Ballet Company, Broad and Locust streets, March 9, 4-5:30 p.m., to discuss her life and her book. Growing up in San Pedro, Calif., as one of six siblings, Copeland’s personal life was usually in turmoil. Her family moved constantly — packing up their belongings and running away from a series of her mother’s boyfriends and husbands — until she found Cynthia Bradley, a dance teacher at the local Boys and Girls Club.
“Because of all the moves, we never really had a chance to explore the creative side of life,” Copeland says. “We went to school, and that was pretty much it. Home life was difficult and focused on surviving — until my brothers and sisters and I found the Club and routinely spent our afternoons there.”
Finding Bradley ultimately changed Copeland’s life. Bradley nurtured the 13-year-old girl’s love of dance and taught her the basics of ballet. An exceptional student and talent, Copeland eventually moved in with the Bradley family to focus on ballet.
Two years later, at the age of 15, Copeland was spotted at an arts competition in California by someone from the American Ballet Theatre and offered a scholarship to the dance company’s summer program.
“At that point, I had only been dancing for two years, but they said they were blown away with my potential.” she said. “And it’s turned into an experience like nothing I ever imagined. I am so grateful every morning to wake up and go to class where all my role models have danced. I know I’m very lucky.”
Today, as a soloist at ABT, Copeland says she has not been forced to confront a lot of racial negativity, although she knows it exists around her. “My advice to others is to do the best you can, try to block out all the noise around you, and dance because you love it. And I think me fighting can make a difference for all the other dancers of color who will come after me,” she says.
Copeland adds she does see the pursuit easing for African-American dancers.
“Just the fact that I joined ABT and talk about race brings attention to it beyond the ballet world, opening up a dialogue for us to talk about it,” she said. “I think that’s the first step. We can’t hide from it anymore. The floodgates have opened up so I think the ballet world will be forced to make changes.”
As the iconic Newport Jazz Festival turns 60, the show goes on the road with a Philadelphia performance and debut at the Merriam Theatre on March 9 at 8 p.m.
The show pays homage to such jazz luminaries as Billie Holiday, Dizzie Gillespie ad Duke Ellington, whose classic jazz standards were first recorded at the festival, and reinvented through the lens of contemporary jazz artists.
The program also provides a progressive exploration of global jazz with Brazilian, Gypsy and Latin influences, and features a multi-gender, multi-national, and multi-generational line-up of noted musicians, including Philly native and multi-Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker.
The versatility of Brecker, a trumpeter and flugelhornist, has made him a much sought-after player, equally accomplished in playing jazz, rock and R&B. Born into a musical family in Cheltenham, he studied trumpet at Indiana University.
“There were lots of happy days growing up n Cheltenham,” Brecker said. “Good schools. Good friends. Lots of good memories.”
In the mid-1970s, Brecker and his brother Michael formed the Brecker Brothers band, released six albums over the years, and garnered seven Grammy nominations. They continued to work together and separately until Michael’s untimely death in 2007.
“Grieving the loss of my brother is an ongoing process,” Brecker said. ”We were not only close as brothers but also close as musicians. So, to no longer have him around standing next to me is a difficult transition, but made easier by the fact that my wife is an excellent saxophonist. The trumpet and sax are like yin and yang, so playing with her adds to the healing process.”
Admitting he still practices everyday for two or three hours every days — “Especially when my wife and little five-year-old go to sleep,” he said. “At one point when I was very busy in the recording studio writing became almost like a hobby for me. I was relaxed by writing tunes and arrangements. I really enjoyed it.”
Brecker continues to record and release powerful music.
For example, in 2012 he released the boxed set, “The Brecker Brothers — The Complete Arista Albums Collection.” In November of that same year, the album, “Night in Calista,” a collaboration between Brecker, the Wlodek Paswlik Trio, the Kalisz Philharmonic Orchestra, and Adam Klocek was released in Poland. It won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, Brecker’s sixth Grammy Award.
When this current tour ends, Brecker said he’s looking forward to doing some of his own gigs, playing in Switzerland and keeping pretty busy through the rest of the year. But for now, he’s thoroughly enjoying playing with the festival.
“The first time I played in Newport I was 18 or 19 years old, so I have a long history with the festival — a long and happy history,” he concludes.
For times and ticket information call (215) 893-1999.
The all-female flamenco troupe Pasion y Arte features long-awaited performances, master classes, lectures and a symposium at Drexel’s Dance Studio on Chestnut Street through March 16.
Joining the group on March 8 will be lawyer-turned-tap dancer Germaine Ingram, who will work with international flamenco artist Rosasrio Toledo to choreograph a new piece called “Tapas”, infusing Ingram’s traditional tap with Toledo’s flamenco movements.
“I have no desire to become a flamenco dancer,” Ingram insists. “I’m as little too long in the tooth for that. But in my own way I am trying to capture some of the quality of the postures and the rhythms of flamenco.”
Earning a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and practicing law for many years, Ingram says she fell under the spell of jazz tap dance in the early 1980s. She did her research and eventually found and began studying with tap artist and teacher LaVaughn Robinson.
“One day I went to see one of his classes,” Ingram recalled. “He had just returned to Philadelphia, and when I saw him dance I knew that’s the way I wanted to move, too. And truthfully, I hounded him until he finally agreed to teach me.”
And so began a 25-year relationship in which, Ingram says, she progressed from a stumbling student to Robinson’s protégé and dance partner. She also appeared with Robinson in the Emmy Award-winning public television production “Gregory Hines’ Tap Dance in America”.
Additionally, she performed and taught workshops throughout the United States, Europe and the Caribbean. She has shared bills with tap greats spanning at least three generations, including Honi Coles, Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown and the Nicholas Brothers.
In the early 1990s, Ingram began working with the Folklore Project on an oral history documenting the lives and artistic styles of veteran African-American tap dancers in Philadelphia. Another outcome of the oral history project is “Plenty of Good Women Dancers,” a video documentary on African-American women tap dancers, which Ingram co-directed.
“Tap dancing is hard. Many people don’t recognize that. Some even think it might have died and now be making a comeback. But I don’t think it ever went away,” Ingram said. “I just think it took a number of notable dancers, like Hines and Savion Glover, who took the dance all over the world, to make people embrace the form.”
Another plus to tap dancing, according to Ingram, is you’re never too old to do it. “In fact, I have friends in their 80s who are still doing it.”
Tickets are available online at www.philaflamencofest.org.
The Prince Music Theater presents the Tony Award- and Olivier Award-winning director Peter Brook’s production of “The Suit,” through March 8. Set in South Africa and based on the play by Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, “The Suit” is a tale of love, revenge and redemption.
The story centers on Philemon, who works for a middle-class lawyer, and his wife Matilda. The suit in the title belongs to Matilda’s lover and is left behind when Philemon catches the illicit couple in the act. As punishment, Philemon makes Matilda treat the suit as an honored guest. She has to feed it, entertain it and take it out for walks as a constant reminder of her adultery.
Leading the Philadelphia performance is actress Nonhlanhla Kheswa, a South African native who began her professional career here at the age of 16 when she was cast in the Broadway production of Disney’s “The Lion King.”
Actually, she says, “The first show I did was in South Africa. It was a drama talking about many things that people don’t like to hear or discuss, called ‘Soul City.’”
Later, she moved to America for her Broadway debut and decided to stay, admitting she loved being here so much that she just wanted to do more and more and more.
An accomplished singer in South Africa’s celebrated vocal traditions as well as in jazz and pop music, she has toured the world as a featured vocalist and performed regularly with her own ensembles in New York.
Today, she is touring worldwide with “The Suit,” which, she says, is getting rave reviews no matter where it plays, even though its beginnings were not so well-received.
“The Suit” began as a novel by acclaimed South African author Can Themba, whose stories were celebrated for the way they depicted the harsh conditions of African life in the Johannesburg townships. As such, his writings angered the apartheid government, who banned his work and declared Themba an outlaw. He died at age 43, decades before his most famous work was adapted for the stage.
Renowned director Peter Brook, along with his collaborator, staged a new adaptation of the original stage version and set it to music from sources as diverse as Franz Schubert and Miriam Makeba.
“The best part of all of this for me is that I got to learn so much from Peter Brook every day, and not many people can say that. Peter in legendary — advancement of experimental theater, his bold operatic version for “Magic Flute,” and so much more — that I consider myself very lucky to have studied with him instead of paying for college courses. I got to learn from the master himself.”
Kheswa is currently planning an album with China’s most famous classical pianist, Lang Lang. Admitting she loves both singing and acting she advises other to just “follow their dreams, no matter what they are.”
Tickets are on sale at PrinceMusicTheater.org.
Based on the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA, “Mama Mia!” will be making its seventh visit to Philadelphia Feb. 25 to March 2 at the Academy of Music.
The hit musical is set on a Greek island where Sophie, a young woman about to be married, discovers that any one of three men could be her father, so she invites all three to the wedding without telling her mother. She also invites her two best friends and soon-to-be bridesmaids to the event to lend a helping and supportive hand.
Ohio-bred Antoinette Comer makes her national tour debut in the show as Lisa, one of Sophie’s best friends. And, she admits, she’s thrilled with the role.
“Maybe because this is my debut that I am so excited and delighted to have this opportunity just to be on stage every day that I don’t see any real challenges,” she said. “If there are any it would just be getting used to the change in time zones and trying to figure out the right time to call my family.”
But that small snag is far outweighed by the thrill Comer said she gets every time she steps on stage, with the biggest thrill coming during the show’s finale.
“At the end of the show, everything is turns into a rock concert and lights flow out to the audience so we can see their faces. Oh, during the show you can hear the applause and laughter, but at the end we get to see them there dancing and singing along with us. That’s just amazing.”
Seen by more than 50 million people around the world, “Mama Mia!” is celebrating more than 5,000 performances on Broadway, and is the 10th longest running show in Broadway history. The original West End production of the show is now in its 15th year in London, and the international tour has visited more than 74 foreign cities.
“Audiences love the show but I think what keeps them coming back is the music,” Comer said. She’s probably right, for who could resist such worldwide hits as “Dancing Queen,” “SOS,” “Take A Chance On Me,” “Waterloo” and many others.
Comer, who describes herself as “a singer who acts and can also dance,” said she got into theater in high school when she auditioned for a play and got a role. “Everything just took off from there. Every chance I got to be in plays at school or community theater, I took. I then went to Kent State University to major in theater.”
After graduation, she says she was lucky enough to find roles fairly quickly, including some of her favorites like “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray,” “Footloose” and “The Jungle Book.”
Her current role in “Mama Mia!” was just made for her. “They wanted the character to be African American, Hispanic or Asian. So here I am. And although at times I might feel pigeonholed, I do know that from what I see right now, Broadway is really good for Black females. So I just consider everything that comes my way an opportunity to show what I can do.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 731-3333.