Michaela DePrince’s dance career could hardly have had a more improbable beginning. Born in Sierra Leone, she lost both parents to the civil war in that country, and her uncle put her in an orphanage at age 3. One day, the wind blew something onto the orphanage gate — a 1979 issue of Dance Magazine. DePrince says, “I loved what I saw inside, but the cover, the ballerina just looked so beautiful and so elegant and so happy. So it created the path I’m on now. I actually still have a copy of the magazine in my house, tucked away in a safe place, just to remind me where I came from.”
Where she is now is at Boston Ballet, as the company’s new second soloist. And though the Ballet’s season hasn’t started yet, you can get an early look at DePrince on Tuesday, Oct. 19, when Shout! Factory releases, on DVD/Blu-ray and digital platforms, the movie “Coppelia.” Filmed in the Netherlands, with dancers from the Dutch National Ballet (her previous company), it’s an update of the original 1870 ballet that fuses live dancing and animation, with DePrince in the lead ballerina role: a young woman named Swan.
It took a while to get to where she is now. DePrince suffers from vitiligo, a condition in which the skin loses its pigment cells. Because of her condition, she was an unlikely candidate for adoption — she remembers being told “nobody wanted a spotted child.” But a couple from New Jersey did. They took her into their large family and sent her to ballet schools. Along the way, she learned to deal with her auto-immune disease. “I hated it because that’s what made people hate me. But now I actually love my spots. It’s what makes me different, it makes people recognize me on the street. It just took me a while to actually love it.”
After appearing in Bess Kargman’s 2011 ballet documentary “First Position,” DePrince joined Dance Theatre of Harlem. “What I enjoyed about that experience was that I saw dancers who looked like me. But my goal was to get people to realize that no matter what color you are, you can be in a classical company.” So after a year she moved to Dutch National Ballet, where she danced Clara in “The Nutcracker” and Balanchine’s “Tarantella” and Swan in DNB artistic director Ted Brandsen’s version of “Coppélia.”
That last role doubtless helped get her cast as Swan in the new film, which was inspired by Brandsen’s version. “I feel Swan and I are pretty much the same: very feisty. We protect our friends and families, and we just want the best for them.”
It’s not the classical “Coppélia.” Swan runs a juice bar, her would-be boyfriend Franz has a bicycle shop, and Dr. Coppelius is a plastic surgeon who’s trying to bring his doll Coppelia to life by stealing Franz’s heart. The score by Maurizio Malagnini ranges from music-box-sweet to Bond-villain ominous; there’s less dancing here than in the traditional version. But it’s a charmer.
Working with animation was, however, a challenge. “Onstage,” DePrince explains, “you have your props, you have your colleagues and friends. When you only have a green screen and not a lot of props, you just kind of have to figure it out yourself. But I think we all did a really good job.”
While at Dutch National Ballet, DePrince published her autobiography, “Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina,” which she wrote with her mother, Elaine. She became an ambassador for War Child Holland, which helps children worldwide who are affected by conflict. And she was invited to appear in Beyoncé's “Lemonade” film. “I did my own solo. They put music on, and I just created and choreographed on the spot. Beyoncé saw the performance the next day, and she came up to me and said, ‘That was absolutely beautiful.’ I just think she’s an incredible human being/artist, and she does so many incredible things that people don’t even know about.”
But last year, DePrince decided she needed a change. “I didn’t know where I was going to go, and then I realized, Boston Ballet. It has an incredible rep, I love the diversity, I love what I’ve experienced from Mikko [Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen]. The dancers are incredible, very genuine, very sweet. The ballet coaches are also great, so I’m really enjoying it.”
What are her dream roles? “I would love to do Clara. I would love to do Sleeping Beauty. I would love to do Kitri [in “Don Quixote”]. I feel Kitri and I are pretty much the same personality. And I’m excited to work with William Forsythe, it’s such a dream of mine. But mostly just to continue to grow and to enjoy the process.”
Watch “Coppelia” starting Tuesday on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Vudu and other platforms, or buy a copy on DVD or Blu-ray at shoutfactory.com.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org