NEW YORK — 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.
It isn’t lost on Charlotte that she “got to grow up in a time when it wasn’t just like, oh yeah, I can do this, but not do this,” she said. “There was nothing holding you back.”
But the cultural shift reaches beyond Charlotte, whose mother’s family is from Trinidad (her father’s side is from the Philippines), as her school works to diversify its student body. In addition to Charlotte, the other young leads this season are Tanner Quirk (her Prince), who is half-Chinese; Sophia Thomopoulos (Marie), who is half-Korean, half-Greek; and Kai Misra-Stone (Sophia’s Prince), who is half-South Asian. (The children are always double cast.)
City Ballet, which takes most of its members from the School of American Ballet, its affiliate, is also showing signs of change. Over the past seven years, 62 SAB students have become City Ballet apprentices; of those, 21 identify as nonwhite or mixed; and of those, 12 refer to themselves as Black; four of those are women. That carries weight: Since the 1970s, City Ballet has largely had only one Black female dancer at a given time.
For Charlotte’s debut, that context is meaningful. Her mother described what happened when Charlotte, who is quiet and artistic — she loves to draw and sing — emerged from her “Nutcracker” audition: “With that poker face of hers, she said, ‘Well, I’m Marie,’ And I just thought, oh my goodness — they really did it. I couldn’t believe it.”
The importance of the casting hit Nebres, who 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, 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 Obama and Copeland to guide them. 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, 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, 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. 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,” Nebres said. “She is introverted in a way. But then when I saw her, I thought, OK, I’m the one that doesn’t know Charlotte.”
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.
Q: What is it like to represent the changing face of SAB?
Charlotte: It’s pretty amazing to be not only representing SAB, 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: What are you most excited about for “The Nutcracker”?
Charlotte: I think the part that I’m most, most excited about is at the end when they’re on the sleigh.
Q: Could you describe what happens?
Charlotte: Marie and the Prince go offstage and sit on this sleigh. Then, they get to float up in the air, and they fly away — they leave the Land of Sweets. I don’t know where they go. It’s like a one-in-a-million chance to do that, and it looks so fun.
Kai: The snow is really magical. It’s really fun in rehearsals to do the scene waking Marie up, but I think with the snow it will give it more of a magical feel. What does it feel like? I think it might be paper.
Sophia: I remember a lot of Princes and Maries from the past like to collect the snow that would fall in their hair for, like, a souvenir.
Charlotte: [Sighs happily] I’m so excited about that part.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: Why ballet? Why is it important to you now?
Charlotte: To me, it just feels like when I dance I feel free and I feel empowered. I feel like I can do anything when I dance. It makes me happy, and I’m going to do what makes me happy. You don’t need to think about anything else.