Hope out of horror

2012-07-14 17:40

Brutally orphaned in Sierra Leone’s civil war, ballet dancer Michaela DePrince returns to the continent of her birth to dance the lead in Le Corsaire, writes Gayle Edmunds.

Poised and gracious, Michaela DePrince is a young woman living a dream that should have been impossible.

At 17, DePrince makes her professional debut in the premiere of Le Corsaire in Johannesburg as Gulnare, before returning to New York where she’ll have to choose which of two acclaimed companies to join.

Brutally orphaned as a toddler during the civil war in Sierra Leone, a photograph of a ballerina offered the little girl a glimpse of another life in a far-off world.

“In the orphanage, there was a magazine with a dancer in it. Seeing that gave me hope and I thought ‘if I can do this, it would be amazing’.”

She ended up in the orphanage after her father was shot and her mother died of starvation.

DePrince was also shunned by some because she had vitiligo, a skin condition that manifests as white freckles on her neck and chest.

But then she was adopted – along with her “mat mate” Mia – and suddenly an otherworldly life was within her grasp.

Mia, currently in rehearsals for a Broadway show, was “orphan number 26; I was number 27. We were four years old and we shared a mat in the orphanage.”

DePrince is now one of nine children in a happy home and her dream to dance was made real with her family’s support.

“I used to think I was dreaming, but then I realised I am not, so I might as well get on with it.”

DePrince’s inspiring story was brought to a broader audience by Bess Kargman’s award-winning documentary, First Position, in May.

The film follows six young dancers among the 5 000 who yearly enter the prestigious Youth American Grand Prix.

The biggest competition of its kind, only a few hundred dancers are invited to perform in the New York finale. DePrince was among them.

“Since First Position, I have been asked to dance often and I don’t like to say no. You never know who will see you,” says DePrince.

One of the people who saw her was Dirk Badenhorst, head of South African Mzansi Ballet. “I saw Michaela dance in New York City and then with the launch of the film First Position … decided that she is the ultimate role model.”

DePrince will dance with Soweto-born, Washington-based Andile Ndlovu and, within 48 hours of arriving in South Africa, she was doing a full run through.

As this is a completely new ballet, the company does not have the luxury of time to get into the swing of things.

“I try not to be a bun-head,” says DePrince with a grin, which she explains is a dancer obsessed with ballet.

She practises for about 10 hours a day, but also takes other dance classes like hip-hop and jazz, and also trained as an Olympic swimmer.

“But I had to choose and dance won.”

» Le Corsaire runs at the Joburg Theatre from Thursday until July 29

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