In conversation with Michaela DePrince
Michaela DePrince, a Sierra Leonean-American ballet dancer, rose to fame in 2011 with starring in the documentary ”First Position”, which was following her and other young ballet dancers as they were preparing to compete at the Youth America Grand Prix, at which her performance gained her a scholarship at the American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of Ballet. As the youngest dancer in the history of the company, she danced with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and currently she is a solo ballet dancer for the Dutch National Ballet, which she joined in 2013.
What inspired you to become a ballerina?
What I would say inspired me was when I found this magazine in Sierra Leone and there was this beautiful ballerina. And it wasn't just the fact that she was something I've never seen before, the position was absolutely beautiful, the costumes were absolutely beautiful in all the pages of the magazine. But the cover struck me so much because she looked so happy and I decided then that I would become this ballerina and to become super happy and that's when my dream to become a ballerina started, in Sierra Leone.
From competing at the Youth America Grand Prix, studying at the American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of Ballet to becoming a professional ballerina. In US, you danced with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where you were their youngest dancer in the history. Then you came to Europe, where you are now a solo ballet dancer for the Dutch National Ballet. Tell us more about your journey from the US to the Netherlands.
I remember that when I got adopted I felt like the biggest thing that I ever have to worry about was people not like me for my white spots, cause in Sierra Leone I was considered the devil's child because of my vitiligo, I was different. But then I got to the US and I realized there's a fact that I was born brown and I fell in love with the art that has always discriminated against brown and black dancers and somehow I was drawn to it and I didn't want to be affected by it. But I was affected by it, I didn't have a lot of friends as well, I never saw a lot of black dancers in my classes growing up.
Then I joined Dance Theatre Harlem, I was the youngest member to join and it was an amazing experience, cause the founder that started it, Arthur Mitchell, he was originally the first black, African-American dancer in New York City Ballet. Obviously everybody knows New York City Ballet is one of the best and he was able to give space for brown and black dancers of different races and built this opportunity to do what you love, to do ballet and know that it's ok to accept your skin color. He would give us the opportunity to wear brown tights, whatever skin tone matched our bodies, but then at the same time I felt like I needed to bring that into bigger companies and change that in Europe or in the US and so I joined Dutch National Ballet, the junior company.
Of course, in the beginning you're a beginner and you don't want to speak out as much, so I was holding my tounge as much as possible and waiting for me to get the opportunity to be at the highest point as possible. When I got to the highest point, that's when I realized it was my opportunity to really try to change it, so I started wearing brown tights at Dutch National Ballet. But even last year, I had to fight for it. They wanted me not to make a big deal about it, but that's just me going back to who I was. Them not letting me wear them, that's not who I was, so they made me feel like I didn't belong again and all those old feelings. Luckily, I was able to make a fuss about it and I was able to wear my brown tights in the end.
I don't want other dancers in the next generation to have to deal with that, to have to constantly feel like you're not fully yourself on stage. You're trying to tell a story, but it's also coming from your point of view and you want to feel like you're most authentic that you possibly can be.
Your road hasn't been the easiest, you faced a lot of racial discrimination, which is a global problem that escalated to its highest levels ever in 2020. What is your view on that, how do you feel about all that?
The Black Lives Matter movement, it's a big movement. It was sad seeing people, who look exactly like me, getting killed for absolutely no reason. I always think we're all human, we all have preferences, we all love, we can all care about each other and support each other. I just don't understand why people are killing people without even getting to know them. You just see them as an animal or whatever and it's really upsetting, cause I've experienced that growing up in New York, that discrimination. Also here in Amsterdam, I've been told to go back to my own country and it's a lot and it's constantly making you feel like you never belong. So that's what I'm trying to do, to change that. It doesn't matter if you're brown, black, spotted, white ... you have an option to conquer your dreams through a lot of hard work and your support system.
What do you love most about ballet, what is the most special thing about this passion of yours?
For me, it's not that I saw ballet and I was living a great childhood. It was what gave me hope as a young orphan who thought nobody ever wanted her and gave me an outlet to just being in a little bubble when other things in my life, even after I got adopted, were not going the way I wanted them to go.
Ballet, it made me feel special. Acknowledgement from the audience always makes you want to do it more and more, but it's just this opportunity to have your own bubble and to be able to express yourself as much as possible. That's why in general art is such a saviour for a lot of people and it's upsetting when they're constantly defunding arts. The art helped me, it helped my sisters and brothers and other people that I know and it's an outlet to express yourself without even having to use words and I think that's the best way for me to express myself. When I'm sad, I can dance. When I'm upset, I can dance.
It's really like a second half of my heart. It sounds cheesy, but it really means a lot to me.
Together with your mom, Elaine, you wrote the book ”Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina”. What inspired you to write your story as an autobiography?
I was getting a lot of good feedback from telling my story and other people hearing it and saying ”You need to talk about it”. I remember one of the biggest moments was when I was living in Vermont and I told my story and the next day two little black girls came in to the studio. They never started ballet because they never thought that they could see somebody who looked exactly like them and as well because of where they came from. Coming to the studio and starting ballet showed them that they could accomplish their dreams and so I decided I wanted to find a way to reach out to more people.
”Taking Flight” is in 12 different languages around the world. ”Ballerina Dreams” is also in around 5 different languages around the world, it'a a children's book. It's inspiring people and that's what I always wanted to do, just to give people hope. I had that opportunity with a magazine, to have hope. And if I can find a way to help people, I'll do it, which is also why I work with War Child Holland.
You've been a goodwill ambassador for the Dutch organisation War Child since 2016. What is the most important thing about this ambassadorship?
I was a refugee at one point and I had no hope. Going on the field with War Child, telling my story and having these children see somebody who came exactly from the same circumstances, accomplishing her dreams and just beating the odds, I'm hoping I can inspire them they don't need to be defined by where they came from. They can become a doctor, they can become a singer, they can become a pediatrician, they can become whatever they want to be, because where you're born does not mean you can't overcome those circumstances.
Tommy Hilfiger partnered with you on their Tommy Icons Campaign for Fall 2020, which is a celebration for the brand 's 35th anniversary. How was it for you to be a part of such a meaningful campaign?
Being part of Tommy Hilfiger's Icons Campaign for Fall 2020, I mean this is just an incredible honor. When I was in LA shooting with such a diverse group of people, it felt like oh wow, I didn't feel like the odd one out. These people come from different stories, they're doing amazing things, accomplishing things that people probably don't even know about. We've really got to know each other and it just made me even more proud to be a part of this campaign of diversity, being together, moving forward together and it's just absolutely incredible to be a part of it. I love what Tommy believes in, I love the vision, I love the concept of everything. I'm just so proud to be around so many incredible people.
The theme of Tommy Icons Fall 2020 collection is 'Moving Forward Together' and represents inclusivity and diversity. The campaign itself celebrates and proudly portrays models from a variety of backgrounds, sizes, ages, gender expressions and ethnicities. What does the message of this campaign mean to you?
What moving forward together means to me is creating opportunities to spread a message of hope, power and love. The hope we need to believe in a better world, the power we need to make a change and the love for each other, no matter who you are or what you look like. That will be a basis, on which a new world will be built.
Tommy Hilfiger is not just a fashion brand, it is also one of the world's most recognized lifestyle brands, that shares its inclusive and youthful spirit. How do you identify with the brand's style and philosophy?
I've been in the Tommy family for a little bit of time. From my experience personally, I think everything that they're doing is very authentic. I believe their philosophy is authentic, I see it in their clothes, I see it with the people that they have representing the clothes, I see it with the fact that they support Black Lives Matter. They really believe in what they're saying and they're thinking about it and making sure it's gonna be equal for everybody and everbody is gonna have that opportunity to feel like this fashion brand ”Makes me feel like I belong”.
What are your hopes for ballet post-pandemic? What's in the future for you?
To be honest, I don't know what my future's gonna be like. Right now I'm focusing on myself and maybe some people might think that's selfish, but it takes a lot of courage to say I need a break.I lost my father this summer during Covid and I wasn't able to see him, so I've decided to take some time off to just focus on the next step of me becoming the best artist I possibly can. With grief, you really have to experience it, you can't just go and supress it. In the dance world it's like, even when you're injured, you continue and it's not about your mental health. But it is important to take some time off. It's scary, but I can not be the best artist I can possibly be when I'm dealing with such grief and loss and Covid, which is a mental thing as well for a lot of people.
At the moment it's just a lot of uncertinty, not really knowing when I can go and see my family in the US. But I do have the certainty right now that I have this amazing support system. They're helping me through everything and I know that's just gonna make me have a better future and I'm just gonna have to be patient. I'm always gonna be an artist. I'll either be a teacher or when I open up my school in Sierra Leone, I'm still gonna be an artist teaching children who deserve an opportunity to see what I've experienced in life and I wanna give back to them. You know, that's a goal that I have after my career.
We'll just have to see. I'm hoping as well that with the Black Lives Matter movement, it's gonna change also the dance world. I mean, it's 2020, let's change this. Dancers just wanna do what they love to do, they should not be defined by their skin color. If you give us an opportunity, if you open those doors to us, we will fight. If you can just do that for us in the ballet world, give us an opportunity that our skin color doesn't define us, I think you will find some amazing, beautiful brown and black ballerinas around the world.
It was a crazy year and I'm hoping things get better. Now it's really time for me to take care of myself and find out who and what kind of artist I will be after all this healing.
Michaela DePrince is one of our cover stars of our Third issue: Dream which you can now pre-order on @boutiquemags
Talent: Michaela DePrince @michaeladeprince
Photography: Woody Bos @woodybos
Casting / EIC: Timotej Letonja @timiletonja
Styling: Gino Gurrieri @ginogurrieri
Art director: Victor Vergara @victor___vergara
Make-up: Anita Jolles using Deciem: The Ordinary & MAC Cosmetics @anitajolles
Hair: Sanne Schoofs using Label M
Styling assistant: Emma Hersbach
Photo assistant: Nikki Hock @nikki_hock
Special thanks to Omyra Samadi @omyrasamadi & @miloukakisina
Location: Parq Studios Amsterdam
Interview by: Jana Letonja @janaletonja
Michaela is wearing Tommy Hilfiger @tommyhilfiger