Dancers & Companies

10 Minutes with Michaela DePrince

Emma Kauldhar, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet

Michaela DePrince has defied the odds again and again. She overcame incredible circumstances, rising from an orphanage in war-torn Sierra Leone to join Dutch National Ballet, where she was recently promoted to grand sujet (demi-soloist). With principal roles and book deals under her belt, DePrince is still doing the impossible—managing her schedule as a college student, an international guest artist, an ambassador for War Child Holland (an organization for children living in war zones) and, most recently, a featured dancer in Beyoncé's Lemonade.

You're in Beyoncé's visual album Lemonade. How did that happen?

Her publicist emailed my mom. At first, I was like, “It's totally fake, it's totally fake." I sent it to my agent and she contacted Beyoncé's publicist. They emailed us on a Monday, and I was in New Orleans filming on Friday. I was there for four days. And I got to meet her! One of my best friends absolutely adores her, so I was trying to see if she could sign something for him. I didn't have anything for her to sign, so she said, “Oh, I'll just call him."

You were just promoted. Where do you see your new position taking you?

Every little girl dreams of being a principal one day. But for me, the older I get, the more I just want to grow as an artist. So if I don't get to become a principal, it's okay. I really want to move people when I dance.

You've been at Dutch National Ballet for a while now. Does it feel like home?

It's my third season. I should know Dutch by now, but I still don't speak any! But even when I was 15 and had the opportunity to perform in The Hague, I felt at home right away—that's the reason why I wanted to go there. It's a very international company, so it's nice that we're all from different places and have a little family there. Because we all miss our families.

What roles are you looking forward to performing?

I'm hoping I'll do something really nice in La Bayadère, but I'm not quite sure. I don't want to put pressure on my director just because I got promoted.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

This month I'm going to Guadalajara to perform in Isaac Hernández's gala to raise money for his school in Mexico. I've known him since I was 8 years old. This is an amazing project for me because I've wanted to open up a school in Sierra Leone so kids can dance there for free. But right now I'm focusing on Dutch National. We have an amazing program coming up, and we're working with Justin Peck on Year of the Rabbit. I'm also studying for college right now. I'm going to be studying human rights, but right now I'm just working on English courses.

Do you ever picture yourself dancing for an American company?

I would love to dance for San Francisco Ballet. But right now I really love Dutch National. If it works out that I'm invited to a different company, then great. But I'll probably stay here for quite a while.

Photo by Julie Lemberger of Stephen Petronio's Untitled Touch (2017) at The Joyce Theater

For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.

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'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.

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It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.

According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:

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Thinkstock

When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.

But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.

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Health & Body
LINES dancer Courtney Henry. Photo by Quinn Wharton

We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.

But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.

A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.

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Dancers & Companies
Nisian Hughes

"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"

Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.

Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

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Dancers & Companies
Photo by Theo Kossenas, courtesy The Washington Ballet

With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.

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What Wendy's Watching

Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Still from La Folía. Shot by Olivia Kimmel, Courtesy Adam Grannick

As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.

That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.

La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.

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Advice for Dancers
Pixabay

It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.

—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT

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