NEW YORK — Swan Lake is always one of the most popular ballets for dance fans. But the whoops and cheers from a packed crowd at the Metropolitan Opera House signaled something more this time.
There was palpable emotion and a clear sense of history in the air as Misty Copeland made her New York debut Wednesday in the lead role, a key moment for the popular ballerina who many hope will soon become American Ballet Theater's first black principal dancer.
Copeland, 32, earned loud ovations after her every solo in the dual role of Odette/Odile, one of the most challenging roles in ballet and one considered an essential part of a star ballerina's repertoire.
The dancer, who has become a leading voice for diversity in her art form and amassed a following inside the dance world and out, had performed the role with ABT on tour in Australia, and as a guest with the Washington Ballet. But Wednesday's performance was considered huge because it was at ABT's home, and signaled a clear step on the path to her stated goal: making history as a principal dancer.
The fact that this was no simple Swan Lake was clear at the curtain calls, with Copeland greeted onstage by two fellow black dancers who've made their own history.
First came Lauren Anderson, a retired dancer with Houston Ballet, who became the first black principal there in 1990. After Anderson, 50, had lifted Copeland off her feet in a hug, out came Raven Wilkinson, who danced with the famed touring company Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in the 1950s and later joined the Dutch National Ballet. Wilkinson, 80, curtseyed to Copeland, who returned the gesture.
Wendy Perron, author and former editor of Dance Magazine, said she felt Copeland more than delivered under great pressure.
"I was especially impressed by her Odette," Perron said, referring to the delicate, frightened swan dressed in white who entrances the prince in the first act. "She completely inhabited the role. She was able to show that vulnerability."
Damian Woetzel, director of the Vail International Dance Festival, called the performance "a long overdue milestone in ballet."
"With elegance and seriousness, Misty made a historic breakthrough," said Woetzel, a former principal at New York City Ballet. "It was an honor to be there."
The Missouri-born Copeland's recent rise to fame includes being named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People this year. The magazine put her on the cover and called her "ballet's breakout star."
She also came out last year with a best-selling memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, in which she recounted the challenges she faced on the road to her hard-won perch in ballet, and which has been optioned for a movie. She also was the subject of a documentary at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.
She's been featured in a popular ad for Under Armour sportswear that shows her leaping and spinning in a studio, while a narrator recounts some of the negative feedback she received as a youngster, when she was told she had the wrong body for ballet and had started too late (she was 13).
Copeland also has appeared as a guest judge on the Fox show So You Think You Can Dance and was a presenter at this year's Tony awards.