Michaela DePrince was only 19 when she wrote this memoir with the help of her mother and wondered if it was not premature to undertake this task. But even at this stage of her life her story is emblematic of many things of great interest.
Before she was five she had experienced a civil war in Sierra Leone that led to the deaths of her parents (her father was murdered by rebel soldiers, her mother starved to death soon after), life as a refugee, life in a dysfunctional orphanage, witnessing the brutal butchery by rebel troops of the pregnant teacher who had awakened her intellectual curiosity and flight from marauding armies. She was then adopted by extraordinary, loving and understanding Americans (Elaine and Charles De Prince) who took her and her best friend, Mia, to New Jersey and changed her life.
In the USA she had to adjust to a whole new world and was brought up in some affluence and comfort but also, as she grew older, experienced the bigotry that can exist not only in white American society but also in the world of dance to which she aspired. It is an astonishing story and it is told so simply and directly that its impact is all the stronger. There is little one can say about this touching book except that it seems easy to read yet persistently awakens very difficult questions about the state of this world.
The story and the experiences of Michaela in Sierra Leone, America and beyond are haunting and disturbing for many reasons; not least the almost magical yet real aspect of her wishing to become a ballerina as a very young child, from the time the wind blows an old ballet magazine to her during a storm in Sierra Leone when she is aged about four and she becomes entranced by the image of the ballerina en point on the cover. The book raises, for instance, the question of inborn talent and capacity as against opportunity and the nurturing of talent. If this little girl from her background has achieved the first steps in what promises to be a fine career but through sheer luck of the draw, how much talent of all sorts is wasted by war and desolation and famine and lack of cultural opportunities?
Michaela, who was born Mabinty Bangura, but as Michaela DePrince became one of the subjects of the documentary First Position. She has gone on to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and is, at this time, with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Refused a child’s part in The Nutcracker when she was eight years old because, in the opinion of a casting director, America was not ready for a black girl ballerina yet; suffering from vitiligo that disfigured her skin for years, this is an inspirational story. It also gives us some unusual and important insights into the world that produces those dream performances of ballet.
Finally, because of the simplicity of the approach and the prose style, it is an ideal gift for young people and, like the Diary of Anne Frank, a moving tale. In America the book is called Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina. The story is well told and even though she is so young Michaela DePrince does us a service by sharing her story with us.
Faber & Faber