The Unstoppable Ballerina

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, March 29, 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Unstoppable Ballerina

Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek

Byline: Malcolm Jones

A young dancer's journey from Sierra Leone to the heights of American ballet.

In the middle of a conversation in the New York City apartment she shares with her parents and four sisters, ballet dancer Michaela DePrince suddenly stands up and extends her left leg out to the side and then the right. "Excuse me," she says in the middle of doing this, "but I have to crack my hips." Sure enough, one audible pop follows another. "I'm sorry," she says, sitting back down. "I have to do that or I can't, like, walk. I'm always hearing from older dancers that dance completely ruins their bodies. The things we do, it's disgusting. If you could see my feet, they're so gross." It's a visceral reminder that ballet dancers, like athletes, not only think with their bodies but contend against their bodies in ways mere mortals barely comprehend. But oh, the things those bodies can do. Sitting back down at the dining-room table, she absent-mindedly cracks her knuckles. She does it fast but with a distinct rhythm, a plangent, percussive riff like something from a kalimba, one of those African thumb pianos. Effortlessly, she's made a nervous habit almost musical, not art but certainly artful. Even in the little things, this is no ordinary young woman.

In her 18 years, Michaela has experienced more than most people do in a full lifetime. Dancing since she was 6, she won a scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of the American Ballet Theatre after competing against 5,000 other young dancers in the prestigious Youth American Grand Prix, an annual competition showcased in the acclaimed 2011 documentary First Position. One of six aspiring dancers the film profiled, Michaela, then 14, supplied the most heart-in-throat moments when she stubbornly danced through a case of tendonitis that threatened to kill her career before it even started.

Currently the youngest member of the acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem, she has already toured on three continents, garnering accolades all along the way. Of her most recent performance, in Don Quixote in Johannesburg, dance critic Adrienne Sichel wrote, "There are not many things left to inflame a grizzled ballet critic's heart, but witnessing the birth of a remarkable ballerina will certainly fit the bill. On Saturday afternoon from Kitri's first sizzling, perfectly stretched grand jete (the first of many), Michaela DePrince, 18, made this daunting principal role her own ... The standing ovation which greeted these dancers, and the Sierra Leone-born American in particular, was richly deserved."

Almost as impressive off stage, Michaela displays a mature poise striking in someone her age. Two days after a 23-hour trip from Johannesburg, with a rehearsal day sandwiched in between, she betrays only a trace of jet lag during an hour spent thoughtfully parrying an interviewer's questions, often with questions of her own. Asked for one word to describe herself, she says, "Do you mean as a person or a dancer?" She picks "spontaneous" for her dancing. For herself, she chooses "mellow," a word that makes her mother, Elaine, laugh. "Michaela, you're the most intense person I know. Even your boyfriend wouldn't describe you as mellow." "Right now I'm very mellow," Michaela insists. "Honey," Elaine replies, "that's just because you're exhausted." For a split second they manage a pretty good impersonation of a normal mother and teenage daughter.

No matter how much she may ever achieve, the most stunning fact of Michaela's life will always be that it ever happened at all. Born Mabinty Bangura in 1995 in the midst of Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war, she was orphaned at age 3, her father murdered by rebel soldiers and her mother felled by Lassa fever. Her uncle took her to an orphanage where, although plainly gifted (she could already read and write Arabic), she was scorned and beaten for her rebelliousness. She was also ostracized for the unpigmented spots freckling her chest and neck--a skin condition called vitiligo that the women working at the orphanage took for a curse.

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