Michaela DePrince takes her next step
Michaela DePrince surprised the dance industry in September when she announced that she was joining the Boston Ballet as a second soloist. Since 2013 she was installed at the Dutch National Ballet, where she quickly became a soloist in 2016. But over the past four years she has also endured a multitude of challenges in body, mind and spirit.
The beautiful complexity of DePrince as a woman and a ballerina is almost impossible to describe in words. She challenged the odds in which she was born as an orphan child survivor of the Sierra Leonean Civil War (DePrince was adopted by American parents), as well as the art form she chose. She has managed not only to navigate between the two, but to excel beyond measure. The petite 26-year-old leaves an impact wherever she is, whether it’s on the stage of an opera, on a movie or television screen, or as a speaker, activist or influencer.
His life in Amsterdam was great – enormous, in fact. Not only was she a soloist with DNB, but she was an international star with sponsors, engagements, books and films, as well as a global jet set. DePrince was Ambassador for War Child Holland; in 2019, she produced a gala that raised over half a million dollars for the organization, which supports children and youth affected by armed conflict and war.
She seemed to be everywhere at once. “I would make music videos, I would play the main roles, [giving] speech, ”DePrince said in a recent interview on Zoom. “And it got a bit much.”
The pressure to be perfect has taken its toll. “When I did too much I felt like a fraud, like I wasn’t completely there,” she says. “And I wasn’t fully engaged, because I was being pulled in so many directions. Over the past few years, I have tried to slow down.
Today, she’s looking for a home, both personally and professionally, and the Boston Ballet feels like a good place to nestle.
Four difficult years
In 2017, a ruptured Achilles tendon triggered a cascading effect that led DePrince to make personal care a priority. Not only did the injury literally sit her down for a while, but in that stillness she was forced to face demons from the past. Later that year, she publicly announced that she was seeking therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder from her childhood in Sierra Leone.
DePrince has long struggled with recurring nightmares, which cause insomnia. Ironically, the retelling of her story, while inspiring to many, kept her tied to the trauma, reliving it with each recount. Without a full-time dance schedule, she had room to sit with herself, which led her to ask for help. “If I hadn’t ruptured my Achilles, I don’t think I would have had the time and space to know how important my sanity was.
The next two years were strewn with physical setbacks that prevented DePrince from fully returning to the stage. At the same time, the health of her adoptive father Charles DePrince was rapidly declining due to Parkinson’s disease. In June 2020, he passed away.
“It was really hard for me to manage, because I couldn’t say goodbye,” said DePrince, who was stuck in Amsterdam. COVID-19 travel restrictions and the often volatile situation on the ground with the Black Lives Matter protests have made it difficult and possibly dangerous for her to travel to Atlanta, where her family is based. “I’ve tried everything,” she said, adding, “a black woman quarantined all by herself for two weeks, alone… It just wasn’t safe enough.”
Her father’s death left her unmoored. In September 2020, she announced that she was taking time off from DNB to deal with the loss and focus on healing through therapy.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to come back,” DePrince said, adding that his Achilles tendon injury had caused a crisis of confidence and loss of identity. “People kept reminding me of what I was. And I am no longer. I am a completely different artist.
Heal body and mind
The break allowed DePrince to really assess what was important to her. She came to two realizations: the first was that dancing was her heart and soul. “I was trying to find a way to get the love back, not just to be in the studio, but really there for me and not for others,” DePrince said.
The second was that it was time to switch from DNB. “It’s such a short career. I felt that it was time for me to go elsewhere to continue to grow, to have a different repertoire, to meet different dancers and to feel like I was nourishing myself. Leaving the company was a decision she made purely for herself and with no exit strategy.
Meanwhile, she turned to her longtime mentor Charla Genn, renowned ballet trainer and Juilliard faculty member. (She and Genn met when she was 15 during an appearance with the South African Ballet Theater, now Joburg Ballet). The two have started regular Zoom coaching sessions. “We completely retrained his upper back, his arm support, his alignment,” explains Genn. “We found the weaknesses in his body and we made it stronger. it works very well [now]. She’s on pointe with ease and her jump is back to where it was.
Genn was also instrumental in healing DePrince beyond the instrument of his body. “She cares about me as a human and not me because, ‘Oh, I’m going to make her a star and my name will be attached to it,’” DePrince said. “I have to say, in my experience, that it has been very rare to have it.”
Unemployed, DePrince turned to him for advice. Genn consulted with fellow trainer Hilary Cartwright, who suggested the Boston Ballet. After doing some research, DePrince was drawn to both dancers (having worked with Chrystyn Fentroy at the Dance Theater of Harlem) and repertoire. She also liked the fact that the Boston Ballet is 15% black dancers (including soloists Fentroy, Lawrence Rines and Irlan Silva and artists Daniel Randall Durrett, My’Kal Stromile and Tyson Ali Clark).
Cartwright called Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen and asked if he had any vacancies and if he was interested in a conversation with DePrince. “I said of course,” says Nissinen. After speaking with DePrince on several occasions and viewing his reel (pandemic restrictions prevented him from auditioning in person), Nissinen reached out to his former partner and current DNB ballet master Caroline Sayo Iura. “She had kind of been like his mentor there,” says Nissinen. “So she knew her very well and loved her and was able to give me some insight.”
A new house
During DePrince and Nissinen’s interviews, corporate culture was one of the topics of conversation. “It’s a business that is teamwork,” says Nissinen. “It’s about the whole business doing well. I care about everyone here. The staff are very supportive, and of course we have very high expectations. His point of view resonated with DePrince. “It’s not about pleasing people,” she says. “It’s also about having a good career and enjoying it, both as a human being and as an artist.
Being fully seen and considered is important to DePrince, as well as being able to bring the full spectrum of his being in the studio or on stage. This includes the intricacy of her blackness (as an African raised in America), her hair (she wears braids now), her espresso hue (wearing tools of her trade that reflect this) and, most importantly, her sanity.
“I felt I was embraced for who I am and what I stand for,” DePrince says. “I think if I want to wear brown tights, that won’t be a problem.” She adds that she feels safe at the Boston Ballet so far. “I came here saying to myself, ‘It’s me, and I hope you will accept it.’ And so far people have accepted it.
In September, at the company’s annual reunion, DePrince performed a solo choreographed by Peter Leung, a frequent collaborator. It was the first time Nissinen had seen her perform live. “It was awesome. It was great to see the artistry, her confidence and the way she translated into live performance.”
DePrince understands the power and reach of its platform. “I hope that dancers around the world can continue to be who they are as humans and as artists.” She has an overwhelming need to make the world a better place, she says. Using her visibility to emphasize the importance of mental and emotional health, recognition of the artist’s humanity and self-care, she is the type of ‘influencer’ that ballet culture and artists need. today.