(photo by Michel Schnater)
Chances are, you’re already obsessed with Michaela DePrince. The 20-year-old has been a bona fide star ever since her appearance in the 2011 documentary First Position. She’s ferociously talented, for starters, and fans can’t get enough of her knockout facility and relentless drive. But her story—as detailed in the recently released Taking Flight, which she coauthored with her mom, Elaine—is also the stuff of fairy tales: DePrince started out as an orphan in Sierra Leone and ended up a world-class ballerina. Huge talent + huge story = media catnip, and over the past few years DePrince has gotten tons and tons (and tons) of press.
(photo by Michel Schnater)
Now in her second year dancing with Dutch National Ballet, DePrince has reached an interesting and unusual point in her career. She has to balance the pressures of international stardom with the challenge of dancing in the corps of an elite ballet company. One day, she’s being featured on a TV talk show; the next, she’s standing in a long line of swans.
How is she handling it all? With grace and humility. In fact, DePrince refuses to let her now-famous history define her. Instead, she’s focusing on her goal of becoming a principal dancer and hopes that the spotlight will soon shift from her offstage persona to her onstage presence. “I’m here not because of my story,” she says, “but because of who I am as an artist.”
Settling In in Holland
DePrince, who trained at The Rock School for Dance Education and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, landed a spot in DNB’s junior company two years ago, after guesting in a production of The Nutcracker in the Netherlands. Her friends Rinus Sprong and Thom Stuart, who’d organized the Nutcracker run, suggested that she take company class at DNB and recommended her to artistic director Ted Brandsen. “It was immediately clear that she was really strong technically and had an amazing jump,” Brandsen says. “I offered her a position straightaway.”
(photo by Michel Schnater)
DePrince quickly felt at home at DNB, with its varied repertoire of classical and contemporary works and diverse roster of dancers. “I love the atmosphere here—the dancers are all so different,” she says. “I can love my body the way it is, instead of eating salads every day and constantly worrying about my shape, like I did in the U.S.”
Now comfortable in her own skin, DePrince has the freedom and confidence to focus on developing her artistry. She’s taken full advantage of some surprise opportunities that have come her way—like performing David Dawson’s high-octane A Million Kisses to My Skin on opening night after another dancer got injured. “It was crazy! I had only two days to rehearse it before the premiere,” she says. “It ended up going well, and I’m happy the company knows it can rely on me.”
Finding Her Voice
While technique comes easily to DePrince, she says it’s harder for her to open up artistically. Ballet master Charlotte Chapellier has been helping her figure out how to identify with each role, and how to use her feet, hands and head with greater detail. “She digests all the information very fast, and she’s not afraid of working,” Chapellier says. “She’s eager to learn.” These days, there’s a newfound depth to DePrince’s dancing, and she’s blossomed in nuanced, lyrical roles, including as one of the pas de trois soloists in Swan Lake.
While she’s still working out the kinks in her port de bras—“I used to be a competitive swimmer, and my shoulders are hyperextended, so it’s easy for them to sneak up”—DePrince is trying not to get bogged down in self-criticism. “I’ve had to learn to let go and be less of a perfectionist,” she says. “In the end, it’s not about having a perfect fifth position, but about enjoying the ballets and sharing the emotion I’m feeling with the audience.”
(photo by Michel Schnater)
Handling the Pressure
DePrince is humbled and a bit overwhelmed by all the media attention she’s received. She admits she’s tired of telling her tale over and over again, but acknowledges that speaking about her experiences has also been therapeutic. “Yes, I wrote the book because I didn’t want to tell the story every single day,” she says, laughing. “At the same time, I wanted to show how you can use the things you go through to make yourself stronger.” DePrince plans to use some of the proceeds from the book—and from the movie version of the story, which is in the works—to open a ballet school in Sierra Leone. “But right now, I want to focus on my dancing,” she says.
Brandsen wants her to focus on dancing, too. He put a hold on media requests for a few months this year to give DePrince a break from the frenzy. “As her artistic director, I feel responsible for her artistic and personal well being,” he says. “It’s not good for a person so young to be under such stress.” Still, he’s impressed with how DePrince is handling it all. “She’s very curious, very open, and is soaking up all the information she can get,” he says. “She just keeps growing.”
Becoming a Grown-Up
DePrince says she’s changed a lot in the years since First Position. “I don’t take life so seriously anymore!” she says. “And I’ve learned that if you’re injured, you have to take the time to rest. You might want to push through pain, but you have to think about your career in the long term.” As a young teen, Michaela also ate “horrible foods” and didn’t realize the value of a healthy diet. Now, she cooks constantly. (“I love making lentil soup!”)
But the biggest change is that DePrince has simply grown up. She lives in her own apartment in Amsterdam and bikes to work every day. “I loved living in NYC and having my friends and family around,” she says. “But here, it’s more about the work. Now my goal is to become the artist I’ve always dreamed of being.”
(photo by Michel Schnater)
Favorite food: “Omelettes. I can eat them anytime.”
Weirdest thing in her dance bag: “A back brace to help keep my stomach pulled in.”
Latest obsession: “Onesies! I have a purple one, a red one, a zebra-print one and even a pig-print one.”
Preshow ritual: “I have to tie my ribbons twice. I had a dream that I missed a performance because I couldn’t get my ribbons to stay in.”
Dream role: “Aurora has been my dream since I was little.”
Secret wish: “I’d love to have a leotard line—but the only things I can sew are my pointe shoes!”
Nickname: “Arthur Mitchell, the founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, used to call me Mickey.”
Most-played music: “I’m really into Taylor Swift and John Legend right now.”
Advice for Dance Spirit readers: “Don’t give up on yourself. It’s OK to be different! Never try to be like anyone else.”
Miko Fogarty doesn’t buckle under pressure. Competing at the Moscow International Ballet Competition, one of the most prestigious dance events in the world? No sweat. Dealing when, en route to that competition, the airline loses her luggage, leaving her stranded with little more than her pointe shoes? Not a problem. Coping after the live orchestra botches her music during the same competition’s final round? All in a day’s work. Through everything, Miko kept her cool with the self-assurance of a seasoned professional—and ended up winning the gold medal.
Of course, it wasn’t just her level head that earned her the 2013 Moscow IBC’S top prize. Miko has pirouettes and extension to spare, though she avoids flash in favor of pristine classicism. Her turns are musical and perfectly placed, her développés beautifully controlled. Her confidence and artistic maturity make you forget she’s still a teenager.
Miko’s passionate commitment to ballet first turned heads in the 2011 Youth America Grand Prix documentary First Position, filmed when Miko was just 12. Since then, she’s blossomed into an artist, winning medals—and fans—around the globe. She’s handled it all with poise, allowing the world into her whirlwind life through her website, social media and various dancewear endorsements. As a result, she’s achieved a level of fame most professional dancers only dream of. This spring, as 17-year-old Miko auditions for companies, all eyes will be watching to see where she ends up.
(Photo by Nathan Sayers)
The Determined Competitor
Born in London, Miko is part Swiss, part British and part Japanese. But she’s really a California girl: Her family moved to Berkeley, CA, when she was 2. At 4 she started taking ballet—and instantly decided to become a dancer. “Even at my preschool graduation I was saying, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a ballerina,’ ” she says.
By age 11, she was training every day with Viktor Kabaniaev at the Diablo Ballet Apprentice Program and attending summer programs at the Royal Ballet School in London. In seventh grade, she traded public school for homeschooling to accommodate her busy ballet schedule. That’s also when she started competing more frequently. “Some people don’t like competitions, but they’ve been really beneficial for me,” Miko says. “You can meet people and network, and they’re also good for stage experience and learning how to handle nerves.”
During the 2009 YAGP finals in NYC, a filmmaker named Bess Kargman popped into the theater just as Miko took the stage. Miko’s strong performance inspired Kargman to direct First Position, a documentary that follows seven contestants as they prepare for YAGP—and she asked Miko (and Miko’s younger brother, Jules) to be in it.
It took two years for First Position to make it to theaters. But once the film dropped, Miko became something of a celebrity. “I’d be somewhere random—at an airport or on a bus—and someone would say, ‘Are you from that dance film?’ ” she says. “It was kind of cool, because even some professional dancers knew about me!” And her success on the competition scene in the wake of the film earned her even more fans. Since turning 15, Miko has scooped up the gold in Moscow, won silver and bronze medals at two Varna International Ballet Competitions and earned the Best Swiss Candidate at the 2013 Prix de Lausanne.
The Dedicated Student
Shortly after the film came out, Miko and her mother moved to Indianapolis, IN, so Miko could study at the Indiana Ballet Conservatory, a Vaganova-based school she discovered during a YAGP regional competition. (Her dad and brother stayed behind in California.) “I was looking for a female coach and realized that there were some really good teachers in Indiana,” she says, noting that faculty members Tatiana Pali, Alyona Yakovleva-Randall and Alexei Moskalenko have helped her polish her technique. Miko also spends one month each year training with Japanese teacher Jinushi Kaoru while visiting her grandmother in Osaka, Japan.
While Miko has been offered opportunities to attend large company schools, she’s made a conscious choice to complete her training in Indiana. “I wouldn’t have had as many performance opportunities if I’d gone to a larger school,” she says. “Plus, I get a lot more individualized attention here, which has helped me improve faster.”
These days, Miko’s schedule is packed with schoolwork, technique classes and rehearsals for competitions or performances. “It’s rare to find someone so passionate so young,” says Pali, noting that Miko often comes in on her own time to practice. “Because of her pure desire to thrive, she’ll work and work until she gets it right.”
(Photo by Nathan Sayers)
The Social Media Maven
Like any 17-year-old, Miko is pretty much addicted to her smartphone. But her social media savvy has actually given her career a huge boost. “At first I used to just post pictures of my life,” she says. “Then I started getting a lot of followers because of the movie and my YouTube channel. Now I use Instagram to connect with them—I message a lot of people back.” Miko divvies up social media responsibilities with her mom, posting to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook while her mother manages her YouTube channel. “To have a voice in the world is really cool,” she says. “I like being able to show ballet to other teenagers who may not have experienced it.”
Recently, she’s gone beyond social media to connect with fans, launching her own website, mikofogarty.com, and signing endorsement deals with Gaynor Minden, Discount Dance Supply and Cloud & Victory. “During photo shoots I always try to keep her from pushing too hard,” says C&V owner Min Tan. “But she’s a perfectionist! She comes in with a great attitude and wants to make sure she nails it. That speaks volumes about the type of person she is.”
The Aspiring Professional
As for company auditions, Miko has her eyes on Europe—though she’s still weighing her options. “I really like the choreographers over there,” she says. “And it intrigues me how much art is part of the larger culture.” She’s planning to meet with company directors at the Prix de Lausanne this summer.
Chances are, those directors are well aware of her already. “She’d be an asset to any company,” Pali says. “She’s talented and hard-working enough to be a leading ballerina.”
Where Does She Get Those Gorgeous Tutus?
Miko’s tutus are handmade in Japan by Ishida Costume. “I absolutely love their designs,” she says. “They’re amazing at ombré styles.”
Birthday: May 23, 1997
Favorite food: mangoes, either frozen or dried. “I also really like natto, which is from Japan. It’s fermented soybeans that you mix with soy sauce. A lot of Western people hate it—my dad can’t stand it—but I can’t get enough!”
Weirdest food she’s ever eaten: “We ate roasted grasshoppers when we were on vacation in Mexico. They were pretty nasty.”
Favorite way to unwind: “When I go back to California, my dad and I always go camping, which is really relaxing.”
Dance idols: Her list includes Uliana Lopatkina, Alina Cojocaru, Sylvie Guillem and Marianela Nuñez. But she admires all kinds of dancers, not just stars. “If someone’s just loving what they’re doing or helping other people, that really inspires me.”
Dream role: Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. “That was the ballet that inspired me to dance when I was 4. I love the music so much. Plus, Aurora was my favorite Disney princess.”
Three must-have items on a desert island: her phone (and access to WiFi, of course), sunscreen and a hat
Miko has been lucky enough to perform at galas in Japan, Peru, Taiwan, Moscow and Bulgaria, as well as all over the U.S. Dancing alongside some of the ballet world’s biggest stars, she says, is a total thrill—and an invaluable learning experience. “It’s fascinating to see how different professional dancers prepare and perform their pieces,” she says. “I find it really inspiring and educational—and it makes me fall in love with ballet all over again.”
Last night I was perusing Netflix for an educational documentary (okay, maybe I was really looking for a sappy rom com—shh!) when something popped up on my screen: First Position. As in the super-awesome Youth America Grand Prix documentary First Position! I was thrilled to say the least. But before I could hit play, a slew of other dance flicks caught my eye. And they looked very promising.
So, if you're wondering what to do this weekend (other than rehearse), we think you should host a dance movie marathon! Connect Netflix instant streaming to your TV and you'll have hours of pure dance entertainment. Plus, your friends will love you for it.
Here are a few flicks we think you should check out:
According to Netflix: "This 2009 documentary profiles five Russian ballerinas from the Mariinsky Theatre, following them from rehearsals to performances around the globe."
According to Netflix: "Follow dancers training for the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world's most prestigious ballet competitions, where the stakes are high."
According to Netflix: "Peasant villager Li Cunxin studies ballet in far-off Beijing, where he trains for seven grueling years to become one of China's greatest dancers."
According to Netflix: "In this follow-up to the 2004 dance flick You Got Served, three battling dance crews perfect their moves for the global Beat the World contest."
According to Netflix: "This inspiring documentary chronicles the adventures of the first-ever senior citizen hip-hop dance team for the New Jersey Nets basketball team."
According to Netflix: "Fifteen-year-old Tara Webster's dream of dancing comes true when she gets into a top dance academy. She soon realizes dancing is only half the battle."
Be sure to tell us which movie was your favorite in the comments section!
This Saturday is a very, very happy day for the dance world: The legendary Dance Theatre of Harlem will give its first performance in eight years. It's a triumphant moment for the company, which fought its way back (under the leadership of Virginia Johnson, former EIC of our sister magazine, Pointe) from a crippling debt crisis.
And the new DTH is starting out with a bang: Saturday's show, in Louisville, KY, kicks off a major international tour that continues through next June, with a stint in NYC in April. Not only will the tour include performances of masterpieces by George Balanchine and Alvin Ailey, it'll also feature a slew of premieres by Helen Pickett, Francesca Harper, Robert Garland and more.
The company's dancers are just as extraordinary. The roster includes exquisite Ashley Murphy, who was just nominated for a Clive Barnes Foundation Award*, and First Position phenom Michaela DePrince.
In other words: There's a LOT to get excited about! Click here to find out when DTH is coming to a theater near you.
*Our friend Lauren Lovette of New York City Ballet was also nominated for a Clive Barnes Award!