After Misty Comes Marie: Breaking Barriers in ‘The Nutcracker’


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She may not remember it, but during the first summer of her life Charlotte Nebres canvassed for Barack Obama with her mother, Danielle, who carried her in a sling. She attended political rallies. And on a frigid day in January 2009, she accompanied her parents and older sister to his inauguration.

When Charlotte was 6, Misty Copeland became the first female African-American principal at American Ballet Theater. That, she remembers.

“I saw her perform and she was just so inspiring and so beautiful,” Charlotte, 11, said. “When I saw someone who looked like me onstage, I thought, that’s amazing. She was representing me and all the people like me.”

Now Charlotte, a student at the School of American Ballet, is breaking a barrier herself: She is the first black Marie, the young heroine of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” at New York City Ballet. It’s a milestone for the production, which dates to 1954.

The importance of the casting hit Ms. Nebres, who herself danced growing up: “What does this mean in a larger context? That was just a whole different conversation than that initial, oh my gosh, you’re going to do this thing.”

When she told Charlotte that she was the first, Ms. Nebres said, her daughter’s response was: “Wow. That seems a little late.”

The children at the school, no matter their ethnicity, are growing up with role models like Mr. Obama and Ms. Copeland to guide them. Ms. Nebres, who has three children enrolled at the school — Charlotte, whom she called “a free spirit,” is the middle child — said she tries to be mindful of that. “It’s tough because we have past hurts, past injuries and disappointments,” she said, “and you don’t necessarily want to color their worldview that way. You want them to approach it with their fresh perspective.” She added: “It really gave me chills thinking about it.”

She’s not alone. Kai’s mother, Kavita Misra, said she was proud that her son was cast this season. “It’s a historical moment and he is privileged to be a part of it,” she said, later adding: “I think at some point they’re just dancers. And that’s what trumps everything else.”

Casting for “The Nutcracker” is not a casual act. Dena Abergel, the children’s ballet master of City Ballet, considers many things, from a dancer’s size and dependability — how often does an 11-year-old hold a Lincoln Center stage? — to dramatic finesse. Tanner, at 13, is older than the others with, Ms. Abergel said, an “inborn princely quality,” while Kai, 11, has “a really sensitive soul — his demeanor is so open.”

Sophia, 12, and Charlotte each have a delicacy. Ms. Abergel said both are quiet in class but stood out to her onstage — Sophia in the party scene of the “Nutcracker” last year and Charlotte as Little Red Riding Hood in “The Sleeping Beauty.” Charlotte ran away with the role — and even surprised her mother, who hadn’t realized she was so theatrical.

“I just thought, they picked the wrong child,” Ms. Nebres said. “She is introverted in a way. But then when I saw her, I thought, O.K., I’m the one that doesn’t know Charlotte.”

Ms. Nebres laughed. “I think that’s the most interesting thing about this experience for me,” she said. “You don’t know what people are seeing in your child, and they are definitely seeing something in her.”

But kids have opinions, too. Earlier this month, this year’s Princes and Maries took a break from rehearsals to talk about the dedication and fun of training to become ballet dancers.

What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What is it like to represent the changing face of S.A.B.?

Charlotte It’s pretty amazing to be not only representing S.A.B., but also representing all of our cultures. There might be a little boy or girl in the audience seeing that and saying, hey, I can do that, too.

How do you feel about Misty Copeland?

Sophia Honestly, if I see an African-American dancer, it doesn’t really make a difference of how I think of them or anything, but I think it’s pretty amazing how she represents something — that maybe a lot of other African-American dancers wanted to be this, but they felt too afraid or something. She just went out there and did what she loved no matter what.

Do you think that ballet needs to change?

Kai I think that it should because stuff is always evolving and the more it changes, the more opportunities people will have.

Is it a big deal for you to be the first black Marie?

Charlotte It is. But to me, it’s just how I grew up so it’s not really different to me.

Does this feel like a sacrifice of your time?

Sophia It can be hard, especially with all the rehearsals to get homework done. But I think overall I’m getting used to the schedule and the whole experience is going to be really fun. I think I will have time to do homework.

You’ve spent a good deal of your lives onstage. What is that experience like?

Sophia I think “Nutcracker” has a different feel to it than if you’re in another show. It’s very magical, like the whole part of it being close to Christmas and the holidays.

Are you nervous?

Kai I’m quite nervous about it. But then I think once I do a couple of shows, it will get more natural. I’m also really excited about the backstage process. I remember having a lot of memories about having fun backstage and going in the hallways — I’m sorry to give secrets — but we would run around.

Charlotte It’s not allowed, but everyone does it.

What did you do?

Charlotte Unspeakable things.

Tanner We would dare ourselves to go into this little room and just scream.

Who is Marie to you?

Charlotte I never really thought about that, but I guess to me, literally, she’s a little Victorian girl who experiences magic.

How do you relate to that?

Charlotte Everyone experiences Christmas magic. She’s a girl on Christmas Eve and almost anyone can relate to that — being happy, getting a little doll and playing with your friends. I think of it as having Christmas every day. That’s the best way to think about it. It’s Christmas! Be happy.

Kai Can I add a little bit to the Marie stuff? I think, honestly, Marie is almost just a normal girl, who is young and has that spirit and then suddenly she gets into this magic world with all of her nightmares, like the mice, but also, all of her dreams, like the Sugarplum Fairy, come true.

What about the Prince?

Kai The Prince is this character that develops. In the beginning, he is Drosselmeier’s nephew and then it’s almost as if he transforms into the Nutcracker and then goes back to being the Prince. He comes out of his shell and just opens up and is like: Here I am.

Do you watch “Stranger Things”? Are you into the supernatural?

Kai Yes. I mean I don’t like many shows like that, but “Stranger Things” is an exception. I started watching it when I was 8. My mom was like, “Oh my God” to my sister and she was like, “Oh, he’ll be fine.” I was — kind of fine? But I kind of wasn’t.

Tanner, as a former Fritz [Marie’s bratty little brother], you have probably studied Princes over the years.

Tanner I definitely think that the Prince is very brave and compassionate especially toward his Marie, which is what I aspire to be like in real life, too.

Charlotte And the pink suit. It never gets old. He transforms from the Nutcracker Prince — sword-fighting, mouse-killer, victorious — to the Prince who is the ruler of the Land of the Sweets and wears a pink suit.



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