She’s been making headlines all year, but Misty Copeland’s 2016 is really only just beginning.
Copland, 33, is set to begin her first full season as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre – and it’s the first ever principal season for a black female dancer in the company’s 75 years. The season, which begins tonight at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, may be a first for Copeland, but it’s also a return to Copeland’s past.
The first role she’ll be taking on this season is Firebird, the first leading role she ever danced for ABT, more than four years ago. She was forced to pull out of the performance to have surgery on her tibia in 2012. Coming back to the part, Copeland says, is the “perfect storm” for her first season as a principal.
“It’s so significant for me,” she told PEOPLE at the launch of her new Barbie doll – who, fittingly, is dressed in the Firebird costume. “I don’t think I would have gotten to this point in my career had I not experienced being Firebird.”
Though her star has been rising, Copeland says that the realities of ballet doesn’t let her head get very big – or allow her day-to-day to change very much, either.
“I’m still me, and I just walk down the street, I look crazy sometimes,” she said. “You have to be in it, and so invested and focused. There’s never really a time that you can forget about it. The moment you lose focus, it could mean the difference between a career-ending injury or not.”
“We’re constantly on stage, and it’s all about the live performance,” she added. “Just because you have a great performance one night doesn’t mean you’re going to have it again the next night. There’s not really time to leave the focus and hard work behind. That’s what keeps me humble and ground and striving to be better everyday.”
What has changed, however, is Copeland’s role in the growing discussion about diversity in the world of classical ballet. Before she entered the professional realm, she says that she felt “sheltered” from matter of diversity in dance – something that’s changed throughout her career.
“I feel like it gave me this added boost of power,” she told PEOPLE of becoming a professional dancer. “[Now], I have this other mission that is so much bigger than me and my dancing career. It’s shaped me as a woman and a ballerina. It’s allowed me to be this voice and vessel for generations and generation to come, and those that came before me that didn’t have the opportunity to share their voice or their art.”
With that mission in mind, Copeland is laser-focused on the season ahead – even though, over the past few years, she’s been stepping out of the ballet world more frequently. Recently, she performed on Broadway in On The Town. But for now, Copeland says, she’s sticking to what she knows best.
“It’s important for me to be focused and get through the season,” she said. “It’s the first of a lot of opportunities and moments for me.”
The American Ballet Theatre’s season opens Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Copeland will take on her principal role as Firebird on May 16.