News from the Mission
Ballet ‘Princess’ makes African debut
By Moagisi Letlhaku | Staff Writer | 26 July 2012
PRETORIA. July 24, 2012 - Michaela DePrince’s dream to become a ballerina started with a magazine cover that she found lying outside the gates of her orphanage in Sierra Leone when she was three years old. The cover was a photograph of a ballerina and although she didn’t know this, she knew she wanted to grow up and look like her. She tore the cover off and kept it tucked away in her underwear as she had nowhere else to keep it.
Speaking to a captivated audience of dance students at Pro Arte Alphen Park in Pretoria on Tuesday morning, Michaela shares the story of how she came to be in South Africa today making her professional debut in a full-length ballet, Le Corsaire, at the Joburg Theatre produced by the SA Mzansi Ballet Theatre.
This is Michaela’s first trip back to the continent, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy South Africa. Her motivational talk at school was part of a day program organized by the Embassy, and included a screening of the award-winning documentary film, First Position, in which Michaela is featured, at St. Peter Claver church, in Mamelodi, Pretoria.
“At first I was terrified to come back. I was excited of course just to dance here, but I was very scared when I got off the plane because, you know, all these memories started coming back.” But the warm welcome she received put her at ease and she is enjoying her time in the country.
Michaela survived the war in Sierra Leone that resulted in her being orphaned at three years old. Her father was shot dead by the rebels and her mother died of starvation a week later because she gave whatever food there was to her daughter.
Her time at the orphanage added more emotional and physical scars as she was labeled “the devil’s child” by the minders because she had vitiligo, a skin condition that causes loss of pigment. She was listed as number 27 on the adoption list out of the 27 children because of this, and being the least favored meant that she got the least food and clothes, but the bulk of the bad treatment.
She found hope in a kind teacher who took a special liking to her, but she too was killed when rebels came to raid the orphanage looking for young boys. She watched them cut open her pregnant teacher’s stomach and hack off her legs and arms in anger when they discovered that she was carrying a girl. Michaela, then known as Mabinty Bangura, tried to save her teacher but she was also cut in the stomach for this by a child soldier, and blacked out.
Michaela was saved when Mia, her best friend at the orphanage and now her sister, went to look for help. Mia was number 26 on the adoption list because she was left-handed and wet the bed. Soon after this, they heard that the orphanage was going to be bombed and they all had to walk 100 miles across rough and dangerous terrain with no shoes to a refugee camp. A small child who was younger than the two four year olds was almost left behind because she couldn’t walk the distance, was saved when Michaela and Mia decided to each carry her halfway on their back. Despite the hardships, Michaela says she has some good memories of the orphanage when she and the other children would play games, dance and laugh. “We were in such a terrible time that we had to find time for happiness too.”
‘My past used to drive me, but now my future does’
It’s been thirteen years since Michaela, Mia (now a musician) and Mariel (who they carried to the refugee camp), were adopted by American couple Charles and Elaine DePrince. Their new parents gave them names inspired by their late son, Michael. “I was so excited to get a new name and I actually thought I was a princess because my last name is DePrince,” she says laughing. As the eighth of nine children growing up in a blended family, Michaela says it taught her how to interact with people, and they were never bored. “I loved Christmas the most because I always got so many presents. Having a huge family is amazing because there is always so much love going around.”
Michaela who has been dancing since she was four, is determined to continue perfecting her art, prove that black dancers can play lead roles despite the difficulties she’s faced in the industry and being told “America is not ready for a black Marie” when she auditioned for the principle in The Nutcracker.
She recently graduated from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York and will be joining the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which performed in South Africa in 1992 on a trip that was also sponsored by the U.S. Embassy South Africa.
She would like to one day open a school in Sierra Leone. “I want it to be for everybody in Africa. The arts do save people and I think it’s a great way to just have fun.” In another year she’ll go to college to study maths or sciences which are subjects she enjoys. “Hopefully I stay friend with the SA Mzansi Ballet Theatre and be able to keep coming back.”
More media coverage
Knockin' on stardom's door at the Daily Maverick, July 23, 2012
Ballet Dancer Michaela DePrince: From Sierra Leone to the Stage at the World.org website
First Position, the film website
“Brilliance is colorblind”: Star dancer born in war-torn Sierra Leone grows up to inspire, from the AP on MSNBC
Michaela DePrince, Star Dancer Born Into War, Grows Up To Inspire at the Huffington Post
Ballerina Michaela DePrince, Once An Orphan From War-Torn Sierra Leone, Defies The Odds And Racial Stereotypes, also at the Huffington Post