Misty Copeland and the American Ballet Theater: A Conversation with Major Allison Ecung

by, Kyla Guilfoil & Caroline McCarthy, Asst. Sports Editor & Asst. Features Editor

Although Manhattan College may be considered small, its connections in the city are large. Recently, Quadrangle staffers became aware that Major Allison Ecung, an assistant professor of the department of air and space studies at the college, has served as a member of the American Ballet Theatre junior council since 2008. ABT is one of the most famous ballet companies in the world and employs well-known artists such as principal dancer Misty Copeland.

“I chose ABT in part because I was a huge fan of Misty’s,” Ecung said. “The junior council is specifically for ballet patrons aged 21 to 40 who love the ballet and want to become more involved with the organization.”

Ecung has served the organization through coordinating outreach programs for younger patrons and was selected to serve as the junior chair for the 2014 Fall Gala and 2020 Spring Gala, which was unfortunately canceled due to COVID-19.

As one might guess from her varying interests, Ecung has had an exceptionally impressive resume. Ecung was raised in Rome, NY where her interest in ballet was inspired by her mother, though Ecung did not pursue much formal training of her own.

“Ballet takes precedence over a lot of other things, so I think my mother kind of steered me away from ballet, but it’s something that I’ve always adored, and I thought was a really beautiful, artistic form,” said Ecung.

Ecung’s admiration for ballet persisted as she received her degree from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. Her career in the Air Force has brought her around the world.

After graduating from the Air Force Academy, she was stationed near Oxford, England as a communications and cyberspace operations officer. After two years on this assignment, Ecung continued her career in Alabama before being deployed to Honduras to serve as a counternarcotics officer.

It wasn’t until 2008 that she was stationed in New York to teach in the ROTC program at Manhattan College. The American Ballet Theatre was the first charitable organization Ecung joined after her arrival in the city.

“I like to be involved in a lot of different things. So, one of the first things I wanted to do when I came to New York, is I wanted to be involved in several of my artistic interests, whether it was the museums that were around or some of the charitable organizations,” Ecung said. “So, again, knowing Misty Copeland was at ABT, it was kind of what led me to choose to join the American Ballet Theater’s junior council, over other dance organizations.”

But she wasn’t here for long. After this assignment, Ecung left the Air Force full time to become a reservist stationed in New Jersey. During this time, Ecung also worked in Midtown, Manhattan. She then spent a year in Washington, D.C. writing speeches for a three-star general. Her most recent tour was spent in Stuttgart, Germany from 2017-2019 before she returned to New York to teach at Manhattan College during the 2019-2020 academic year.

As Ecung continues teaching here at MC, her love and engagement with ballet persist. In conversation with The Quadrangle, Ecung shares her insider experiences with the ABT.

When Ecung was chosen to be the chair of the 2014 Fall Gala, she was able to spend a lot of time with the dancers and also with the organizers who are in charge of running the charity.

“It moves me to think about the amount of work that it takes to organize something like [the ABT], to put an event on, to raise the kind of money that’s needed to fund a major company like [ABT],” said Ecung. “A lot of people don’t realize how much effort these individuals put into it, so I’ve always really appreciated that.”

Ecung shared that she looks forward to the Spring Gala above all else. According to Ecung, the dancers perform a preview of all of their planned performances for the following season during these galas. As a patron, Ecung also gets to speak with the dancers during events.

“I really enjoyed just getting to meet the dancers, and spend time outside of just performances [with them],” said Ecung. “I think, you know, your normal audience just gets to see them from afar, and admire them from afar, but when you’re a member of the junior council, we have a kind of fall event. So, the last time we had one was September 2019, and of course, you get to meet a lot of the dancers.”

Ecung remarked that these conversations are particularly special to her, as ballet dancers are so often idolized and not viewed as common human beings.

“I think in a way we kind of idolize ballet dancers because they are perfect, considered the ideal physical specimens, the ideal athleticism, and so it’s nice to be able to get to know the actual people one on one and see them outside of that perfection,” said Ecung.

Ballet dancers have been in-spiring to Ecung since she was young. Especially as a serving member of the Air Force, Ecung must maintain a high level of physical strength and health. Even more so during the pandemic, Ecung shares that ballet dancers’ commitment to their athleticism is in-spiring to her to maintain her own.

Specifically, Ecung has found inspiration from Misty Copeland, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater.

“People told her she didn’t have the right looks, she didn’t have the right body type, but she just worked so hard and she became this inspirational, amazing, world-wide phenomenon, that I think is recognizable everywhere,” said Ecung. “I think anybody can look at that and think, ‘Yeah, I started something late, yes, I’m not normally the type that’s expected to do something, but I can look at this woman that achieved this amazing goal, and now she’s a principal dancer at the premier company in our country’, I think we can all look to that as a form of inspiration in our own lives for anything that we want to achieve.”

Ecung has been particularly impressed with the ABT dancers since the outbreak of COVID-19 last March. Besides retaining their physical standards, the dancers have found ways to perform together, even when they are scattered all over the world.

“When everything got shut down in March, the dancers had been preparing for months and months in advance to prepare for the upcoming season,” said Ecung. “I think the ABT has been so creative in ensuring that they were able to still hold the Spring Gala, so they held the first-ever virtual gala in May 2020, which was really impressive. I know they were able to raise some funds that way. I really loved it, because it really was so unique, it was something that was entirely different. You had dancers that, at that time of May of last year, were all over the country and all over the world. And so, they took the time to film, on their own, parts of the dance, so that it could be incorporated and edited together, to create one amazing performance. They’ve done things outside the box since COVID started.”

In addition to a virtual gala, the American Ballet Theater was able to host a fundraising panel in fall 2020. The panel featured the four lead performers of the celebrated dance film, Center Stage. At the time of filming, the dancers were members of the American Ballet Theater, so there was a clear connection to the organization.

Ecung was able to send in questions to the four stars during a cocktail hour event hosted for the ABT patrons before the main panel, which can be found on YouTube. This event was also able to raise funds for the ABT while in-person performances were not possible.

Despite the challenges the ballet industry has faced this year, Ecung has no doubt that it will recover.

“I think that [reopening the ballet] is not something that [can] be rushed, but I think that there’s always going to be a need and a desire for ballet, so I don’t think the ABT is ever going to go anywhere,” said Ecung. “There are always going to be people who love ballet, and who want to be informed in the sport.”

Ecung encourages Manhattan College students to get involved with the ABT if they are interested. She feels that she has gained both incredible friends and experiences because of her involvement with the charity.

“Especially now during COVID, I think we’re especially focused on what we need, and in that, the arts sometimes get overlooked,” said Ecung. “I think there is still as great of a need for [the arts] because it lifts you out, when you’re sad, when you need to focus, when you’re upset, you can just look at this beautiful art form, and support the dancers as well. So, I think it’s a great opportunity.”