Ballet Stars

Michaela DePrince on Tapping into Her Painful Past to Take on the Character of Myrtha in "Giselle"

DePrince soars in English National Ballet's "Giselle." Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

As told to Amy Brandt.

Myrtha is a role I've always loved to watch, but when Tamara Rojo asked me to dance it for English National Ballet's Giselle last year as a guest artist, I thought she was crazy. The role is usually for a tall, strong dancer. I'm strong, but I'm also very petite. I thought people might criticize me for that. I also wore brown tights onstage, since I'm a brown dancer, and I was nervous people wouldn't understand that—but I got great comments on it.


I really enjoyed trying to find how I could become Myrtha. I worked closely with ENB associate artistic director Loipa Araújo, and I tried to soak up everything she said. She explained that Myrtha has already experienced what it feels like to have a broken heart. She doesn't want the other girls to dwell on those men who've hurt them, so she tries to show them how to be a strong figure.

I'm young, but I've experienced a lot of heartbreak in my life, so I could relate. I thought about how I would feel if I had the opportunity to show somebody else that those people who break your heart aren't worth it. Lately I've been trying to break down those walls and dredge up the things that I've been through in order to touch the audience. I tried to portray an almost arrogance towards Albrecht, because he's worthless to me. I needed to show Giselle that their love isn't real.

"Make the role your own, and make sure you're proud of it. Don't try to be like somebody else. Otherwise you'll feel really uncomfortable, and the audience will sense that."

Myrtha is an exhausting role. When I would get tired my shoulders tended to go up, so I had to find a way to lift above my rib cage to make everything look simple and easy. At the end, your feet feel floppy because they're cramping up, so I worked on the clarity of my footwork, the way I jumped and the way I landed. I tried to relax as much as possible, too; if I get too excited then it's hard to feel grounded. It helped to be sharp with the eyes, to really concentrate on where I'm focusing, to make the movement more fluid.

I had two shows with Alina Cojocaru as Giselle, and each one was a bit different. We'd use each other's energy, and I think it made it more authentic. If you think too much, you're not enjoying the moment. From what I've been told, Myrtha doesn't have a change of heart at the end, but I almost had tears in my eyes watching Alina.

Dancing Myrtha was really special—I was going through some things personally at the time, where I felt like I wasn't improving. But doing this role made me believe that I shouldn't give up on myself. It gave me the will to grow more.

The Conversation
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