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Misty Copeland Celebrates Ballet's Beautiful Friendships In 'Bunheads'

Nov 29, 2020

In Misty Copeland's new book Bunheads, a young girl named Misty discovers her love of dance with her friends. The dancers in this studio "come from all different walks of life," Copeland says. "They have different backgrounds, different body types, different skin color, different hair color, different ethnicities."

Copeland is a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre and best-selling author. Her 2014 book Firebird won a Coretta Scott King Award. She started training in classical ballet when she was 13.

"Most of these characters are actually based on my actual friends I grew up with ..." she explains. "I wanted to be able to share a story of these beautiful relationships."

In Bunheads, a young Misty dances the ballet Coppélia — it's the story of a young toymaker who devises a villainous plan to bring a doll to life. It was one of the first ballets Copeland danced when she was just learning ballet — and it was among the first big principal roles she danced as an adult with American Ballet Theatre.

"It was a fun story that had a lot of color, a lot of costume changes, a lot of scene changes," Copeland says. There's also a "delicate romance," she explains, but "nothing crazy or overly passionate."

Bunheads was illustrated by Setor Fiadzigbey. He usually draws superheroes and had never drawn dancers before. "I was a fish out of the water when it comes to dancing and ballet and the Coppélia play," Fiadzigbey says.

G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers

But Copeland didn't mind that Fiadzigbey didn't have dancers in his portfolio. "When I saw Setor's illustrations and art, though none of them were were ballet dancers, they were superheroes," she says. "And I think to myself, dancers are superheroes." Copeland was confident he could translate that superhero energy into dancers who would leap off the page.

What Fiadzigbey might have lacked in experience he made up for in diligent research. "Thanks to all the YouTube videos and the Google image searches and all of that ...you can go and do the research and get the kind of information that you need," he says.

Fiadzigbey begins the book with "a pretty warm palette" and then builds to Misty on stage with "a bit of a cooler temperature."

He also evokes the movement of the dancers in sketched rather than finished lines. "I've always been in love with sketches, with the kind of energy that you find in sketches versus very finished, final work," Fiadzigbey says. "Since we're also dealing with something like dancing, I thought that it was important to have that energy."

"At last lost in the dance, she felt the heat of the lights when she twirled and imagined she could see every face in the room, especially Mommy's."
Setor Fiadzigbey / G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers

Copeland says that approach mirrors the work of a dancer. "We're layering on experience and information and preparation to get to the final product," she says.

Copeland was "blown away" by the way Fiadzigbey captured the footwork, the line of the body, and the athleticism of the dancers.

Setor Fiadzigbey / G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers

"My idea of ballet and the dancers was completely shattered ..." Fiadzigbey says. "I realized that sometimes you guys would actually have to almost defy body mechanics."

One of Copeland's favorite examples of this is in an illustration of young Misty practicing the rond de jambe to tendu front. "You see the steps in her leg kind of making the big circles through the air. ..." Copeland says. "That's such a physical and athletic movement, but yet so graceful in the way [Fiadzigbey] captured it. I think it's important for kids to see ballet in that way."

Fiadzigbey was drawn to Bunheads because he saw it as a book of dreams. "I have a young daughter, and I would like her to be able to pursue her dreams, to have the boldness and the courage to pursue them, whatever they may be," he says. "If it's dancing, so be it. If it's something else, that's fine. I think Bunheads speaks to that."

Copeland hopes this book helps young dancers feel comfortable in the studio and on the stage. "I feel like having a book like this would have maybe made me feel more accepting and comfortable with my body and being an athlete," she says.

"Watching Cat dance her parts with ease made Misty try harder. They inspired each other."
Setor Fiadzigbey / G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers

Beth Novey adapted this interview for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Misty Copeland is a prima ballerina and a bestselling author. Her 2014 book, "Firebird," won a Coretta Scott King Award. And her new children's book is called "Bunheads," which is also a term for a ballet dancer.

MISTY COPELAND: "Bunheads" is a story of a group of young dancers in a ballet studio that come from all different walks of life. They have different backgrounds, different body types, different skin color, different hair color, different ethnicities.

MCCAMMON: Copeland based the book on her own life. In "Bunheads," a young girl named Misty dances the ballet "Coppelia." It's the story of a young toymaker who devises a villainous plan to bring a doll to life.

COPELAND: It's fun. It's funny. There's, you know, a small, kind of delicate romance. You know, it's nothing crazy or overly passionate. I just thought it was a fun story that had a lot of color, a lot of costume changes, a lot of scene changes. And not only was it one of the first ballets I did when I was starting out as a young girl in school; it was also one of the first big principal roles I did with American Ballet Theatre as an adult.

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MCCAMMON: "Bunheads" was illustrated by Setor Fiadzigbey, who sketches a lot of superheroes and athletes but had never drawn dancers before.

SETOR FIADZIGBEY: No. No. I was fresh out of the water when it comes to dancing and ballet and the "Coppelia" play. That was obviously part of my research. I had to do a bit of research on the play to be able to visualize it and then draw it.

COPELAND: When I saw Setor's illustrations and art, though none of them were ballet dancers, they were superheroes. And I think to myself, dancers are superheroes. And for you to be able to bring that energy, you know, through the page and off the page, I knew you'd be able to do it with a dancer.

FIADZIGBEY: I think you answered one of the questions I've had for a while, which is, how did you pick me? But thanks to all the YouTube videos and the Google image searches and - that's the good thing about this, too. Ballet is quite specific. So getting many different dancers doing the exact same thing does give you a sense of what the movement should look like.

COPELAND: I'm blown away by that, by the way - the way that you captured and understood body proportion, the footwork and the line of the body and legs. And, you know, I've worked with different illustrators, and there's often, you know, back and forth. And I'll often take pictures of myself doing poses so they can really get an idea. And I think everyone involved, you know, with kind of coordinating between us was shocked whenever I wouldn't have any notes (laughter). And they're like, are you sure you looked at it? I'm like, I did. It's perfect.

FIADZIGBEY: I started the process by doing quite a number of sketches of a younger version of Misty in certain key moments in the story that I thought were vital to the general look and feel. And I decided to go with a pretty warm palette in the beginning and then have a climax, which is Misty onstage with a bit of a cooler temperature to it.

I've always been in love with sketches - with the kind of energy that you find in sketches versus very finished final work. Since we're also dealing with something like dancing, I thought that it was important to have that energy. And so I didn't really clean up a lot of the sketches. I rather decided to paint on top of the sketches.

COPELAND: It definitely mirrors the journey of a dancer and an artist. We're layering on experience and information and preparation to get to the final product, so I love that. And I think also one of the reasons that I was drawn to your work was that I wanted it to be something different, you know? It's not often really shown in a true way as to what a dancer's body looks like.

FIADZIGBEY: I know that, for me, my idea of ballet and dancers was completely shattered. When I started to dig and I started to go deeper, I realized that sometimes you guys would actually have to almost defy body mechanics, if that makes sense. You know, like, instead of - if you lift one leg, your hip naturally compensates, but you're not supposed to do that. You know, things like that - you guys are really superheroes.

(LAUGHTER)

FIADZIGBEY: Yeah.

COPELAND: I feel like having a book like this would've maybe made me feel more accepting and comfortable with my body and being an athlete, and I don't think that's something that's often talked about either - is seeing all of the athletic feats. And, you know, I think about one image in particular, Setor, that you made, and it's when you were doing the rond de jambe en l'air. And you see the steps in her leg kind of making the big circles through the air, and I think that's such a physical and athletic movement but yet so graceful in the way you captured it. I think it's important for, you know, kids to see ballet in that way. I definitely think that, you know, seeing this book at a young age and seeing diversity on the page would've been a really positive thing to experience.

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MCCAMMON: That was illustrator Setor Fiadzigbey and author and prima ballerina Misty Copeland talking about their new children's book "Bunheads."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.