Budding Black ballerina breaks NYC Ballet’s Nutcracker color barrier

Zita Allen | 1/9/2020, 11:31 a.m.
This past holiday season, ballet history was made when New York City Ballet’s annual production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” ...
Taner Quirk and Charlotte Nebres Erin Baino photo

This past holiday season, ballet history was made when New York City Ballet’s annual production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” featured 11-year-old Charlotte Nebres, the first Black ballerina cast as the classic’s lead since it was first produced sixty-five years ago, in 1954.

Nebres played the ballet’s central figure, Marie, a little girl whose Christmas is brightened by the gift of a toy Nutcracker. The ballet is filled with the stuff of children’s fairy tales. There is a dream sequence with a towering Christmas tree, a battle between giant mice and toy soldiers led by the Nutcracker, an enchanted snow-covered forest, dancing snowflakes, a Land of Sweets with a Sugar Plum fairy and waltzing flowers. In the ballet, Nebres holds the Lincoln Center stage with ease and grace.

While much of the media coverage of Nebres focuses on the fact a Black youngster “breaks the color barrier” and stars in this time-honored ballet classic, Charlotte captured its importance when telling a New York Times reporter how she felt watching Misty Copeland become the first Black ballerina American Ballet Theatre chose to make a principal after 75 years: “I saw her perform and she was just so inspiring and so beautiful. When I saw someone who looked like me onstage, I thought, that’s amazing. She was representing me and all the people like me.” Nebres probably spoke for many aspiring Brown-skinned ballerinas when she added, “I feel free and I feel empowered. I feel like I can do anything when I dance. It makes me happy…” But, she also reminded us of the many little girls and boys before her who, though equally talented and capable, had been locked out of that world simply because of the color of their skin.

Let’s face it, until recently, for many Black parents the predominantly white world of ballet didn’t make their child’s dream of becoming a ballet dancer a realistic career choice. So, to get Nebres’ parents perspective on the fact NYCB finally chose to permit a lovely, young, gifted and Black ballerina to play the lead in its production of The “Nutcracker,” The Amsterdam News recently spoke to Charlotte Nebres’ mother, who, herself, studied ballet at a young age.

Q: Charlotte has such a lovely stage presence. How long has she been dancing?

Ms. Nebres: Charlotte started dancing while she was in my stomach. I would take her to the Mommy and Me ballet class I attended with her older daughter before and after she was born. Then, when she was 6 years old, she started with the Children’s Division of the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for NYCB. Some of the kids are asked to participate in productions, like The Nutcracker, beginning around age 8. At age 9, Charlotte appeared in the ballet as an angel. The following Christmas she was one of the little cousins at the party. This year, she’s Marie, who the story centers around. She’s also been in Midsummer Night’s Dream and had a leading role in Sleeping Beauty where she was Little Red Riding Hood. She was pretty magnificent in that and that was my first inkling she might be in the running for some sort of lead role. I didn’t realize before that she could hold the stage in that way, but it was really delightful and mesmerizing to watch.