Michaela DePrince speaks through movement. Brushstrokes of form and grace that explain a lot about who she is and what she’s been through.
And there’s a wisdom there that belies her 25 years of age.
Through most of that life she’s been told that she wasn’t good enough; she wasn’t pretty enough; she wasn’t enough to be who and what she wanted to be.
“Nobody deserves to feel like they can’t be themselves while they're doing something they love so much,” Michaela DePrince tells me.
The ballerina speaks with a soothing calm that betrays the astounding stories that make up the chapters of her life.
You’re equally entranced and outraged to hear about the uncle that dropped her off at an orphanage at the age of three, just after she lost her father to the Sierra Leone Civil War and her mother to the subsequent hardships of trying to keep her little girl alive.
You’re beguiled but bewildered when you hear of the orphanage and its “aunties” that called her the devil’s child on account of her vitiligo.
And you’re in awe when she relays the moment she saw her future, a photo of a ballerina stuck to the gate of that orphanage.
Fate’s knock on the front door, it would seem.
The orphanage only furthered feelings of isolation. They even had a ranking system for their children, a way to gauge the least favorite child, a particularly cruel system was as capricious as you might think.
Her best friend ranked 26th because she was left-handed. Michaela was last because of her skin condition, one that prevents some parts of the skin from producing pigment.
Being Black In Ballet
Two decades later and DePrince is still very much that outsider, but one who shatters conventions and remolds them, becoming an example of what could be when dance moves on from the constraints of tradition.
Or, as she so wonderfully puts it, she is trying to, “spread more poppies in a field of daffodils.”
Adding vibrance and depth to the cultural palette is never easy.
“We've come so far and yet we have so much further to go,” said Calvin Royal III.
Royal has the distinction of being one half of the duo that became the first African-American couple to dance lead at the American Ballet Theatre. His partner at the time was renowned dancer Misty Copeland.
I catch up with Royal back in April, just as the world is settling into the new normal of self-isolation, prior to the upheaval of protests surrounding the death of George Floyd.
Even way back then, just a few weeks ago, a pressing need was obvious. We need more people of color. And we need them on stage, off stage and around the stage.
“It's not just about the dancers on the stage,” Royal said. “It's about the choreographers; it’s about the people in positions of leadership. It's about the people that make these productions happen especially in ballet.”
A scarcity of diversity is a dangerous thing. It leads to discouragement and disenchantment for those young budding stars sitting in the audience looking up with the wonder of possibility.
At eight, DePrince was up for a lead in “The Nutcracker,” but quickly discovered she was the wrong color.
“I ended up not having the opportunity to perform it because I heard them say America's not ready for a black Marie, which was very devastating at a very young age,” she said.
It was hardly the last time she would be delivered such a blow. At about nine she had it explained to her why Black ballerinas aren’t given the same encouragement and training as others.
“We don't put a lot of effort into black ballerinas because they all end up getting big boobs and big thighs and getting fat,” a teacher once said.
Finishing The Line
Nearly 15 years later and DePrince, who is now with the Nationale Opera Ballet in the Netherlands, just wants to complete her line.
A line is something you strive to perfect in ballet, a pleasing aesthetic when the entire body from top to toe blends uniformly. It’s not only wardrobe and human form but confidence that completes the line, something that becomes quite evident when you’re standing on stage, allowing your strengths and vulnerabilities to coalesce.
Even as a professional, DePrince has had to battle for the simple request of being herself while performing.
You see, every dancer is afforded the opportunity to finish their line, creating this remarkable visual of uniformity, a harmony of the body.
White dancers for centuries have been afforded pink tights to finish their line, wardrobe that complements their skin tone.
Black performers have had to wear the same, despite the visual of being cut in half. The dancer is sliced in two, becoming two halves instead of one whole.
DePrince made the simple but profound decision to don brown tights, something she continues to get flack for to this day.
Up for a principal role recently, she was told of the tights, “that is the ugliest thing I've ever seen.”
But when you are someone like DePrince, you show the world the beauty and value of a poppy among a sea of daffodils.
Brown tights. Finishing the line. A little girl or boy in the audience seeing themselves on stage. That’s what this is all about.
It’s about showing the next generation that, yes, you can be a person of color and shine on the classical stage in any role. And you do it with precision, power and grace. Things cultivated through thousands of hours away from the limelight.
A Demanding Craft
Calvin Royal III performs with pristine elegance. It’s an elegance born from hours of toil, rehearsals, core exercises and one routine after another.
Ballet is as much a magic trick as it is an artform, deceiving the audience into believing the dancer’s effortless lines and smooth coupling are truly without effort.
Royal’s ascent to stardom is particularly impressive simply because he was so late to the game. While other dancers were dropped into the world of ballet at three or four, the Tampa Bay-area native first discovered dance at 10 but didn’t really find ballet until 14.
But find it he did, immersing himself to the point that his talent was spotted by principles of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. An encounter that earned him a full scholarship just two years after taking up the art form.
“The thing about ballet, as you go to a performance and you see the beauty and the ease, it takes so much to get to that point,” Royal said. “For most people who aren't familiar with ballet, it's not as easy as it looks. We work hard to make it look easy.”
Working hard means getting to the studio for rehearsals around 10 a.m. for exercises and combinations, which lasts until about noon. That’s when dancers get to enjoy all of 15 minutes to get lunch.
After that, they rehearse every hour on the hour for seven hours, enjoying a five-minute break in between. During a time of year like the spring, you can tack on a show at night, pushing dinner to 10 in the evening.
“It's a challenge because you can go from one style to a completely different style, switch gears; it's very intense and rigorous,” he said.
The Anguish Of Missing Time
Injuries obviously play a role in the life of a dancer. Sure, there are workouts with personal trainers and core exercises to keep the body healthy, but injuries happen. Royal recently rolled his ankle, which meant a long recovery process.
“Like many athletes, it’s a part of what we do,” he said. “It's our job.”
Three years ago, DePrince suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon. She then had to deal with the subsequently atrophied calf muscle.
“Once I was able to get back on stage and have that confidence and just to be able to feel like I'm flying again in the studio, it was amazing; it was all worth it,” she said.
This year has afforded dancers a rare chance to rest and recuperate, something that isn’t often granted a young performer.
With that said, missing just one season is a gut-wrenching blow. ABT’s executive director, Kara Medoff Barnett, told the New York Times in April, “the cancellation of our Met season is, for A.B.T., akin to the cancellation of the Olympics for those athletes.”
“We have such a short window,” Royal said. “ But we are doing as best as we can in our homes, living rooms and in our kitchen during this time. But just to miss one season is huge for us because that time is so precious.”
Livelihoods are paused and training is moved to living room training sessions on Zoom. Dancers are certainly feeling the effects of months of uncertainty thanks to COVID-19 precautions.
“Half of your heart is missing that's what it feels like not being able to tell these stories,” DePrince said. “It's very heartbreaking for sure.”
A Changing World
When DePrince and Royal return to their respective stages, they will come back to a world changed, altered, completely foreign to the one they had experienced prior to this lost season.
I spoke with both in April when the world’s worries centered on the growing danger of a global pandemic.
A lot more has taken place since that time.
Underlying systematic racism and the tragic death of George Floyd sparked weeks of protests and demands that the world do better, be better and listen to a community that has been screaming for years about the dangers of being Black in America.
For these two pioneers, they continue to dance and revel in their artistry to largely white audiences, next to a contingent of colleagues who are also predominately white.
Put simply, it’s most definitely time to see a Black Marie.
It’s only when we see these roles performed through myriad lenses that we build up the kind of empathy that will get this world closer to racial harmony.
“I have seen that things are changing and hopefully there will be more Misty's (Copeland) and Calvins in ballet companies across the U.S. and across the world,” Royal said. “I definitely see the change happening.”
For DePrince, ballet is how she prefers to express herself. If you rob her of dance, you take away the very fabric of who she is. Now imagine that little boy or girl out there not getting a chance to do the same.
DePrince recalls being 18 and performing for the first time with the Dance Theater of Harlem.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was amazing to be surrounded by people that looked like me. It was amazing to feel comfortable in my own skin, to wear brown tights, to not feel like I'm two different people.”
Thanks to Michaela and Calvin, their lives, their work and their performances, young dancers of color will find it easier to finish their own lines.