In the Shadow of a Diamond: Cindy Bradley
Cindy Bradley is the epitome of a newfound ballet. It is fresh, simple and more complex than even George Balanchine could have imagined it almost a century ago. It is fit and ready for a new generation of artists and athletes. The fascination behind the woman is nothing less than an enigma that surpasses most concepts of our times. She is not only a choreographer or ballet dancer. Yet a greater magnetic force, beyond the great Misty Copeland success, continues to propel her story and that of her dancers within the realms of ballet.
A decade ago during my teenage years I fell in love with ballet. As a theatre art major, I began taking class and it innately became a lifetime habit, as it becomes with all that have truly loved the art form. Leonardo da Vinci once said that “once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” Ballet is in many ways a human form of flight that shapes our bodies, souls and for some defines a life purpose. When the Misty Copeland Square was unveiled in my new hometown of San Pedro, I realized the impact ballet will have on a new generation, locally and internationally and what an honor that one of America’s most influential people happened to come back home at 13th and Pacific.
Four years after Misty’s celebrated return, Cindy invites me to meet for our interview in her new home. With hot milk tea in hand I take in the mesmerizing residence overlooking the largest ports in the world – Los Angeles and Long Beach - floating calmly on the gleaming Pacific Ocean. The previous week Cindy attended The Nutcracker and Four Realms, Disney’s world premiere in Hollywood and posed for People Magazine along Misty as fairy God Mother of the ballet dancer. Sporting her usual dance attire, today she was still recovering from the magical moment that meant the world to her. “I have to say that standing next to her feels very wonderful. She was just moving every inch of her body, for every shot. I was just standing there just loving being next to her. That was pretty cool. And then I thought, oh no, I’m in this picture too. Then she (the photographer) said, ‘pretend you’re teaching her or dance together,’ just do something like that. Misty just starts doing all this stuff and I’m like okay. I will just hold her and watch. That is what my role has been anyways. Just holding her in the beginning and watching,” says Cindy.
“I love the picture, I love it!”
That evening at the Dolby and El Capitan theaters where the premiere was hosted, Cindy wore a Norma Kamali velvet suit, red like her hair and piercing like her eyes. When I first met Cindy in 2015, I wrote she is the Anna Wintour of ballet. Partly due to the red bob haircut that elegantly shapes her face. However, most of the time you will find her in dance attire, and even on a red-carpet day she kept true to that embodiment. Fashion brand Norma Kamali sports a dance background and has become known for apparel that underlies a seamless comfortable couture. That made Cindy happy and comfortable in a day when butterflies were flying high with excitement. A long golden ring embroidered in crystals shaped like a magic wand on her hand and completed her role that evening. Don’t read a book by its cover couldn’t apply any less. Cindy’s presence much like her character is statuesque and elegant. Walking among the famous Disney stars, if there is such thing as a celebrity, Cindy is a new kind. She carries a certain mystic legacy, which comes along only once every generation.
The premiere party at the Dolby Theater was in a world unique only to Disney. The enthusiasm of one of the greatest American brands in the world lighted the way for the red-carpet stars and young at heart alike. Creatures walking on stilts juggled at the awe of both adults and children, ballerina dresses everywhere and on display like adorned statues, the costumes of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Casually a familiar face would pass by, having just stepped off the red carpet, like actress Melissa Joan Hart, from “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” As the long red carpet formed behind the glass, I took a sneak-peak at a still figure of Cindy watching Misty shine in front of the cameras. She looked especially enamored when the young Mackenzie Foy came out in a flower sewed tulle skirt, her hair tied neatly in a ballerina updo. Cindy turns towards me and reminiscing of the young ballerina she had loved like a child of her own, remembers how Misty used to style her hair like the actress. Tonight, the 31-year-old ballerina’s long flowing ponytail added a soft touch to her evenly shaped shoulders and arms. Her bright smile, amidst some family issues, was uplifting, joyful and strong. It is what role models are made of afterall.
It was fascinating to watch part of the movie portray Misty as much as she portrayed the magical cast of ballerinas that told the story of the Four Realms. Lead actress Mackenzie portraying Clara was thrilled to work with Misty on set as much as she (Clara) was to watch the ballerina dance. The first applause of the evening was for the ballet dancer who kindly tells me that is, “just because we’re in California.” Yet coming from a collaboration across generations, between author Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman - the original writer of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in 1816 – and Disney, the new generation ballerina added to the story an important element. “It’s amazing just to think about the next generations that will see this film and will see a brown ballerina and it will be what is normal to them. It will be like, oh that’s what a ballerina looks like. And to me that is the most meaningful,” says Misty.
After the premiere in a packed Oscar Room next to the theatre while waiting for the stars of the movie to arrive, her brother Douglas Copeland, a tall male Misty figure celebrated to his sister’s side. The image of his sister, immortalized in a Disney character and more, is deeply personal to him. “I’m still processing what I just saw. I’m still astounded what she has been able to accomplish through her gift and talent. I’m just really proud. That is the immediate [response]. The rest I can probably tell you a day or so later. I’m still processing,” says Douglas. In the presence of her brother, apart from the resemblance, one wonders what Misty was like before ballet, even before her very first class at the San Pedro Boys & Girls Club. “She was double jointed so I used to make a little “money” off some of the crazy things she would do. Because nobody would ever believe it, so my friends would check it out,” says Douglas. “One trick that she used to do, she would lock her fingers together, put them over her head, and keep her fingers unlocked even as her arms went down her back. You would see her shoulders kind of click and keep going. I called it a hand jump roll. Crazy stuff, when we were kids.” Misty has her mother’s proportion, he shares. A small torso, long legs and big feet, and among the six siblings she always carried a distinct name.
“We knew something was different about her. She was eminent. There was something. Cindy discovered her. She realized that. She had the eyes. There is a story that says she touched my sister’s arch of her foot and realized something special. Just from a touch. Some people have that ability. It’s quite a gift. It is as much a gift as my sister’s dancing is. Recognizing a gift is also a gift.”
An exhaust of enthusiasm and happiness shined from Cindy that evening. There was so much to take in that perhaps she wanted to save some for later and I am sure she did. At the Oscar Room sitting at a small table between Misty and Cindy, one could sense the lifetime bond that unites them. Cindy admires her with a caring heart and Misty for a second becomes the teenager that many years ago bid farewell to challenge a few ballet realms of her own. “It is a full circle. Crazy that the first ballet, the first real ballet performance was the Nutcracker at the San Pedro City Ballet. To be able to reunite in this moment through the Nutcracker again and for the premiere here in my hometown, it’s amazing!” Among the heavy media coverage which Misty received in the past years, no photography or billboard does justice to the strength and depth behind her large brown eyes. “It’s so interesting to think back of the person, the little girl that I was and all that ballet has given me. It made me a person, a whole person. I feel like I was just so underdeveloped. Didn’t have any social skills. Ballet has literally defined me and made me who I am. It is just incredible to look back and to also be a real and true proof how the arts can impact a person’s life. To me that is the most amazing thing for people to see. It is beyond going on stage or being famous. It’s made me into this person. It pushed me to advocate even harder for keeping the arts in schools. Through my travels to Rwanda, through this organization MindLeads they literally can measure how the arts affect a child’s podiatry.” Misty has also invited Cindy to join her in the MindLeads mission in the near future.
Twenty five years ago Cindy and her husband Patrick Bradley founded the San Pedro City Ballet. After ten years of teaching on the Palos Verdes hills she read about Arthur Mitchell starting the neoclassical ballet company Dance Theater of Harlem. His mission for the company to look like the community inspired her, especially how Mitchell began educating the dancers himself. Today it is celebrated as a world class company fully fledged at more than 300 students and growing. “That in my mind was the most exciting endeavor,” says Cindy. “I wanted to go somewhere where I was needed.”
The school was founded in a small storefront on Western Avenue in San Pedro, with eight dancers. Following sixty auditions the school performed its first Nutcracker after three months at the San Pedro High School with an audience of eight hundred. “By the next year, Misty Copeland was in our Nutcracker,” says Cindy. Whether it happened to be just a mere coincidence that Misty had joined from ground zero of the school that sits at the Misty Copeland Square, that only history will tell if it hasn’t already. “I definitely envisioned (Misty) becoming a huge star and that the sky was the limit for her,” she says. “Two Barbie dolls, maybe that didn’t come to mind.”
Trying to imagine the visionary behind the ballerina is also a journey of its own. While other girls were playing with toys, a young Cindy fell in love with dancers on television. It wasn’t something she had seen in her town – Warner Robins, Georgia - and at her tender age not sure that it even existed beyond the screen. After a baton twirling class and a parade, she traded her white go go boots for a pair of pointe shoes and tried to join a ballet class but didn’t have too many options. Then she found out about a teacher giving class in a basement and signed up with the other girls in the neighborhood. For a while Cindy and her friends had made that their playground, riding their bikes to the teacher’s house, throwing them in front of the yard and enthusiastically holding on to the barre which made the studio. There it clicked, she was in her element. Once the teacher taught a young Cindy everything possible, along with her mother Kathryn Vodovoz they went to the Atlanta Ballet Company. That was her first experience of a real ballet class and she was hooked. “You just wanted to learn, learn, learn. It’s just like Misty, she wanted to learn everything about it once she loved it,” says Cindy.
Later she joined New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet, the Virginia Ballet Company, Louisville Ballet Company, the San Diego Ballet Company and North San Diego County Ballet. Dance has always fascinated Cindy but even more the endless possibility to share the art form. The moment she learned ballet, it was an instant call to share it with everyone. Her very own first class was at the age of ten for children in the neighborhood also in her home basement. When an injury hit at the age of 18, the passion to share ballet and nurturing ability also made for a natural transition from ballerina to ballet teacher. While a grueling experience for most young dancers, it opened her eyes how much more she enjoyed teaching than performing. “I know some people which might start teaching because that is what they do once they’re finished. I am glad that I started early, because I got to be better and better as a teacher. And it takes that long,” says Cindy with a smile.
Over her dance clothes, her trademark outfit is a pair of Chelsea boots and a leather jacket. Cindy calls it her uniform. Her black sunglasses, at least by today’s perception, gives a hint of the star in the shadow she has become. You do feel in the presence of a star with Cindy all the time, even if there aren’t a group of paparazzi waiting to get a peak. While a principal ballerina at the North County Ballet in San Diego dancing in Swan Lake and Coppelia, in 1978 Cindy started a band called The Wigs, had records, was featured on KROC and played for 10 years. “It was something that I always wanted to do. Even while I was dancing, I was a huge fan of David Bowie, Alis Cooper, and I would imagine myself doing that. A theatrical rock thing. When the rock show came out, it was like wow!” She calls it “ballet with a ninge.”
The many dynamics behind the woman that discovered and launched the future successful career of Misty has been nothing less than usual. Amidst the edginess and wild side that it takes to begin a certain ballet renaissance, there is a vintage finesse in her voice, reminiscent of a true classic ballerina and artist. Her words are light, carefully placed but sharp. Much like the art form itself. It becomes clear what a deep appreciation and grand investment she has sacrificed in order to become part of it.
I ask Cindy if the ballet world awaits her next talent launch, and she humbly replies that this is only local to San Pedro. Yet Enrique Anaya, the 19-year-old – also a ballet prodigy in the making – who much like Misty didn’t know of ballet’s existence until his teens, only three years in training and born with the body of a ballet dancer, under Cindy’s tutelage is ready for an apprenticeship. She calls him her male Misty, and the ballerina herself jumped at the opportunity to mentor him in New York two years ago. After a summer intensive at the American Ballet Theater today he is auditioning with ballet companies. Aside from Cindy’s blessing, he will definitely be one of the ballet contenders to keep an eye on in the next decade. Four other starlets, Violeta Lemoh-Boghunovich, Chelsea Salinas, Nicolette Tombu and Helena Ghekiere made their debut in SPCB’s 25th Nutcracker this December. The 15-year-old Helena led the performance of the Nutcracker as Clara with a youthful endurance and strength. Her sharp focus magically veiled throughout the performance the illusion of her light ballet steps. Helena is one of Cindy’s next discoveries too.
Cindy has a method and her method is fast. “The switch turns and they are on,” she says. Most of these dancers either haven’t discovered ballet until their teens, like Enrique. Their bodies, will, and ultimately hanging on to the newfound dream becomes their sole instrument. At the SPCB they are sheltered with art. She calls one of her dancers, Nicolette, a creature from another world. Her mother had seen her for the first time perform in years and she was amazed. Much like how it was launching Misty, to advance the school and great platform that it has become, the SPCB has been a community effort one which she keeps dear to her heart. On the Nutcracker gala evening day, it was announced that Dr. Joseph Adan had made a gracious donation of $50,000. San Pedro, a small city in one of the biggest ports of the world, finds its own way to launch quite a few exciting talents. Yet, like many great breakthrough initiatives, Cindy hasn’t always navigated smooth waters. When Misty caught the attention of the media, for the good and bad, a flood of misunderstanding took over, one which by today has been glared by the star the ballet dancer has become. Perhaps also one that at the time took away from the magical talent that was before our eyes, still young, soft spoken but within, already strong as a Firebird. Misty had been homeschooled by the Bradleys for three years and at the age of 16 filed for emancipation. From that point until the age of 30 they were apart. “I knew she was going to dance her way around the world, but I knew she had to be able to tell them that she could, in order to do it,” says Cindy.
The last talk Cindy had with Misty at the age of 16 was emotional. It was just too unfortunate that, as faith would allow it, that was going to be their last for the next 15 years. “When the LA Times called and asked what she was going to do for the summer. She said, ‘I don’t know.’ She was on her way to San Francisco Ballet for the summer. She had gotten a full scholarship! And a scholarship everywhere, except New York City Ballet didn’t offer her even a place,” says Cindy. She remembers sitting down with Misty afterwards, that being the first time she had ever taken on a tougher subject with the young girl that carried an emotional protective shield.
“Misty you can’t go through life like this. You’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t open your mouth and speak. You have so much to say. She cried and that was the last conversation I had with her. She went to San Francisco Ballet and they never let her come back to me,” says Cindy. “I think she absolutely found her voice through dance. If she credits me for anything it was maybe just that, that she tried to dance. I talked about finding her voice, but she is the one who did that.”
Patrick Bradley, her husband and the Drosselmeyer Magician of the Nutcracker for the past 25 years, has been her shadowing support. His sense of humor and appreciation of the arts – Patrick is a former dancer, a fine artist and art high school teacher – have kept the spirits high for the many generations that have walked through his founding school’s doors. In the 25th Anniversary program book of the SPCB Patrick writes: “So here we are at our twenty-fifth year…ready to take the next step toward the next milestone, the next goal, the next benchmark. That’s right, FIFTY!!! The Golden Anniversary…the Big One…GOLD. If you really think about it no one much cares about thirty or forty. People have a tendency to reject those years. Ask someone how old they are. Twenty-something, thirty-something…Never thirty, never forty…but FIFTY; now that’s something! Of course, that would put me at the tender young age of one-hundred-and-eleven. But I’m down. And, of course! I’m not going to write another one of these until then, so, there’s that to consider. Cindy told me the other day that she thinks this year will be the best year ever for the San Pedro City Ballet. The love of my life is a true optimist…and that’s what keeps this train on the tracks and headed in the right direction.”
“My husband was the real star here. He was so great with her. He calls her mystic. He called her that from day one. Mystical. We went somewhere, and she had shrimp scampi and she never had shrimp before. He saw how much she loved it and he would make it for her all the time. He would have done anything for her,” says Cindy.
When Cindy tells me that by now she has become tired, to the regular eye it is little believable. She raises like a phoenix each time, embodies its spirit and enthusiasm whether it is for her pool of talent or the potential projects peaking at her window, like a documentary. There is also a wave of little dancers that find her and unlike those from past generations, they are well informed and ballet savvy. They are inspired more than ever to explore the ballet they have learned about on YouTube.
As our interview comes to a close, the woman with the eyes, the visionary of a ballerina, still holding her first published photo in People magazine close to her heart, reads with tears in her eyes the first quote she had given to the Daily Breeze in 1997. “I said in December 1997, ‘There are a number of African-Americans who have made it into ballet companies but very few who have become superstars. Misty’s going to be in a position to inspire many children to aspire for more. We talk about what she’s going to do after she becomes famous and that’s certainly one of her goals and part of my hopes and dreams for her as well.’”
Twenty-two-years after, like a precious award she holds Misty’s Barbie doll at the Disney’s Oscar Room event. “One of the things about that night that was so incredible for me personally, it was being photographed with Misty for a publication the first time, ever. It was my coming out with her. She gives us so much credit all the time. I just love her for it and I think it’s wonderful because it furthers what I am doing in the community with the other young dancers. Programs and all of that, it helps sometimes.”
“I have a really strong connection with her. The moment I touched her foot is just something that I can’t explain. And I told her she was going to dine with the Queen one day. There she is sitting with Barack Obama being interviewed by him. It is like my Goodness! She’s speaking with the President.”
Cindy is indeed an optimist with an immense ability to recognize worlds of value in the eyes of her dancers. Her rank among the ballet greats is a unique story, much like that of Misty. She was the first to recognize the ballerina that would go on to challenge both the art form and its social platform. The mystical ballerina has built bridges between characters, a large ballet online network and payed homage to those in whose footsteps she follows. I am sure Arthur Mitchell and Raven Wilkinson can’t help but smile from above. And the story continues. Cindy’s phone is swamped with messages from producers, directors, and most importantly her ballerinas. It is special seeing Cindy at work and trying to imagine what her next big project may be. In her own words, “the switch turns, and they are on.”
Photography by Diamonds Mirror - Photographer Fiorella Occhipinti
Makeup by Stylist Hiromi Robertson.
All images and content is copyright of Worldwide Mirror Media Outlet © 2019.