Taking Flight: An Interview with Michaela DePrince

Photo: Jade Young.
Michaela DePrince
Michaela DePrince. Photos by Jade Young.

If you do not yet know the name Michaela DePrince, you will. Michaela was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in a hut with her parents during the height of the civil war there. When she was three, her father was shot and killed by rebel forces. Her mother, refusing to eat so her daughter would have food, died of starvation shortly thereafter. The next year of DePrince’s life was full of abuse and malnutrition while living in an orphanage that was bombed and then in a refugee camp. Amazingly, at age four, Michaela and her best friend, Mia, were adopted by an incredible family from New Jersey. She had only seen a picture of a ballerina from a tattered magazine before moving to the U.S., but instantly she knew that ballet was what she wanted to do. She had no idea how difficult the profession would be — even more so if you are dark-skinned. But she was just like any other child: she had her dream.

DePrince’s memoir, Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, was released on Oct. 14, and it details the genuinely incredible story of her life. It not only discusses her rise from the ashes of war (her birth name was Mabinty Bangura) but it talks about a lot of challenges that dancers face, especially dancers of color. Before getting ready to depart to France for a performance, DePrince took a few minutes to answer some questions I had.

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SJ: That moment right before you go on stage, when you’re standing in the wings and the music is playing and the lights are on…what do you think about?

MD: At the moment right before I go on stage I put everything out of my mind. At that moment I don’t think of bad news, nor good news, because either one can affect my dancing. I get into character at that moment. I think only of the person I am portraying, and what she is feeling.

SJ: I have noticed in reading your book that you have a unique ability to become the characters you play. This is difficult for many dancers, to leave the training and rehearsal to your muscle memory and just transform into someone else. Do you think that your past experiences have made it easier for you to “escape” into another character than most dancers?

MD: I don’t think it is my past experiences that have made it easier for me to “escape” into another character. I think that two things help me do this. One of them is my musical training at a young age, which has left me with the ability to have a good sense of the music. Instead of having to count steps in my head, I can rely on my sense of the music to get me to where I belong, when I belong there. Then there is my natural love of storytelling. I come from an oral history culture where the storyteller becomes her character. So I think it is genetically ingrained in me to become the character.

Photo: Jade Young.
Taking flight!

SJ: How have you seen your race play a part in your casting and/or contracts? Do you think this is an issue that is getting better or are we still stuck in the past?

MD: I believe that my race has played a part in not getting contracts. North American companies tend to shy away from black female dancers who are darker than a brown paper bag. I couldn’t get into classical companies in the U.S. and Canada. I would make the cuts in auditions and would be one of the last five dancers standing when the audition ended. I’d expect to get an offer, but I never would. After enough of these auditions I began to think that I was truly a dreadful dancer. Then, when I was 17, I auditioned for the Dutch National Ballet. After the audition, when [DNO Director] Ted Brandsen walked over to me and invited me to join the company, I said, “Really?” He sort of chuckled and said, “Yes, why didn’t you think you were good enough?” The truth was that by that point, I didn’t.

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In the Dutch National Ballet, my race doesn’t affect my casting. I dance in both classical and contemporary ballets. I danced a solo in both Back to Bach and Swan Lake! I don’t know if it’s this way in other European classical companies, but in the Dutch National Ballet you are cast according to your dancing, not according to your color. I was thrilled when the English National Ballet offered a contract to Precious Adams, and I am delighted by the direction Benjamin Millepied is leading the Paris Opera Ballet. I think that North American companies need to jump on the bandwagon. For like Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a-changin’…”

SJ: How much of your past experiences are still a part of your everyday life? Do you carry it onto the stage and into your work ethic or are they separate?

MD: I suspect that, like everyone else, my past is still and always will be a part of my everyday life, though not consciously. Unless I’m being interviewed I never think, “Oh, I was an orphan and survived a war.” I don’t know if my determination is apart of my African years or not, but I know for sure that my work ethic comes from my upbringing.  My parents are very hard-working people. They are amazing and always accomplish what they set out to do. I have always admired my dad’s incredible work ethic.

SJ: When was the last time you felt like number 27, your “number” at the orphanage?

Michaela DePrince En Pointe
En pointe

MD: Whenever someone is cruel to me or treats me unfairly I feel like number 27. Fortunately this has only happened to me twice — once when I was 13 and again when I was 15. Both times it made me feel better to call the woman involved “Auntie Fatmata,” like the wicked auntie in the orphanage. Not to her face, of course.

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SJ: You have been blessed with an incredible family. Do you ever think how your life could have been different?

MD: It sends a shiver up my spine to think of what my life would have been like without my family, because it would have been very short. I had mononucleosis and severe bacterial tonsillitis when my mother came to Africa to pick me up. My pediatrician in the U.S. told my mother that I probably would have died of sepsis within days if I had remained in Africa.

SJ: Often people say that dancers must give up their childhood; do you feel like this is true? Do you feel like dance forced you to mature at a younger age?

MD: Dance did force me to mature at a younger age because I had to live in a boarding high school in order to get the dance education I longed for. But that was very much my own choice. I also had to learn to travel alone without my parents. I flew to South Africa alone at the age of 17.

However, before my teen years, I had a perfectly normal childhood. My sisters and I had lots of dolls and we’d set up tea parties for them. Every year we went camping, hiking, swimming and kayaking together. We went to the Jersey shore and amusement parks. I swam on teams and played for long hours in the sun every summer. Dance lessons were just incidental, a part of that childhood. I made friends in my dance classes. They came to my birthday parties and I went to theirs…very normal stuff.

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SJ: It seems you have been a very goal-oriented person — what goals do you still have?

MD: Professionally I would like to someday reach the peak of my profession. Would it be too much to aim for prima ballerina?

Personally, I would like to someday get married and have a family. Thanks to some of the principal dancers I know at the Dutch National Ballet, I realize this is not a totally unrealistic possibility. I really admire those who have had children and returned to their performance careers.

Finally, I would love to one day start a free art school in Sierra Leone. I’d like to include the performing and visual arts in the curriculum. I feel that there are many children there whose hearts would sing and whose souls would soar if they had an opportunity to develop their artistry.

SJ: Have you found that you have a harder time trusting someone and letting them into your life because you have experienced such atrocity?

MD: I definitely have a hard time trusting. Sometimes it takes years for me to completely trust someone. Then if my trust is betrayed, I have a hard time getting over it.

SJ: Dance is one of the most demanding career choices for such a finite amount of time. What is about the dance world, both the art and the business side of it, do you dislike the most?

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MD: I don’t dislike anything at all about the dance world, not even the business side of it. I think because I love math so much, and my father is a businessman, I’d find the business side of it very interesting. However, I love the performing and choreographing end of it best. When I am no longer able to dance well, I will definitely turn my attention completely to choreography part of it.

Oh, yes! I almost forgot. There is one part of the dance world I do dislike: traveling to get to a performance. I get car sick, train sick, and I get terrible earaches on planes. But once I’m there I love it. I thought of this because I’m leaving for China tomorrow, and it’s a long flight.

SJ: Is there an experience or memory that is very important to you that did not make it in the book?

MD: Yes, there is a special memory that did not make it into the book. When I was four-and-a-half, and my parents took my sister Mia and me to Vermont and we visited an alpaca farm. A baby alpaca named Topaz lived there. He was exactly my height, and I thought that he even looked like me. He had black curly hair and white spots. I played with him and he followed me around. I would hug him around his long neck and he would give me kisses on my face. We became friends and I felt terrible when I had to leave him. I tried to convince Daddy to buy him, but Topaz cost $25,000! Since then I’ve always has a soft spot in my heart for alpacas, and I’d love to have one for a friend some day.

SJ: Do you think of the influential role you could play in the evolution of dance, helping people see the talent before the skin color, or do you think just about being a dancer?

MD: Ever since I was a little girl and noticed that there were so few black ballerinas in classical companies, I’ve wanted people to see that black girls can dance classical ballet too. The reality is that you can’t help notice my complexion. I’m not tan. I’m very dark. So even if I wanted to be just a dancer, it wouldn’t happen. I know that I’m playing an influential role in the evolution of dance, and I’m happy to be the Ruby Bridges of classical ballet.

Taking Flight is available in stores and online now.
Taking Flight

Final note:
I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed getting the opportunity to ask these questions, but one thing really stuck out for me. It is a shame that talented dancers like DePrince have to leave North America to work as professional ballet dancers. It is not a shame for them as much as it is for us, who miss out on their incredible performances and their dedication.

A lot of people assume that dancers dance for themselves, but this could not be further from the truth. There would be no dance, no arts at all, without an audience. They want you to see them, to be affected by what they are doing on stage, it is their driving force. That is what we are missing. That is what we will continue to miss until the dance world in this continent starts to view things differently, because as DePrince so aptly put it: “The times they are a-changin’…”

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Shane Jewell
Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.