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Dancing the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy is always a special role in Ballet West's classic annual production of "The Nutcracker" by Willam Christensen.
That is especially so for Katlyn Addison, who will become the first African-American dancer taking a turn in the role for Ballet West as "The Nutcracker" returns for its 60th holiday season in Salt Lake City, playing Thursday through Dec. 27.
Addison's role on "The Nutcracker" center stage is part of a banner season for diversity in the ballet world, including headlines earlier this year as American Ballet Theatre dancer Misty Copeland became the first African American to attain the rank of principal at one of the nation's top-tier ballet companies. The promotion celebrated Copeland's talent as it cast a spotlight on the lack of black dancers in leading classical roles in major U.S. ballet companies.
Addison said she feels fortunate not to have experienced racial bias in her career, and during her childhood in Canada, her dance instructors were always supportive. Yet it wasn't until studying under Lauren Anderson at Houston Ballet that Addison said she could truly picture herself achieving at ballet's highest level. In 1990, Houston Ballet made history by promoting Anderson as the first female African-American principal dancer of a major ballet company in the United States.
"I feel so honored to be dancing Sugar Plum," Addison said. "I am immensely grateful to Lauren Anderson for mentoring me and paving the way, and to Misty Copeland for raising awareness that black ballerinas can be seen for their abilities and not for their skin color."
BW artistic director Adam Sklute said he believes "it is the responsibility of artistic directors to commit to building diversity in their organizations."
Sklute's first responsibility, of course, is to choose the very best dancers and students "[who] dance and move and look like a part of Ballet West, and I do believe that while we have many different body types and races in BW, we maintain the elongated, linear look I like and a unified style of movement clean and pure but fluid and expressive at the same time."
The look Sklute hopes to achieve onstage reflects the world he said he prefers to live in "of ethnic and racial diversity. I find it more beautiful and interesting."
He also has practical concerns. "If our art form is to survive into the 21st century and beyond, we must make a concerted effort to welcome and develop all dancers so that ballet is for everyone and all audience members can see themselves reflected on the stage."
Addison has put her energy into busting ballet stereotypes through one-on-one mentoring and joining the social media movement Brown Girls Do Ballet (BGDB). The start-up, "dedicated to promoting diversity in ballet programs through various media platforms, training resources and an exclusive network in the world of ballet," surprised even its founders in 2013 when it went big on Instagram.
Thirteen-year old Olivia Winston is a student in Ballet West Academy's professional training division and serves as the academy's ambassador to BGDB. She is listed as one the Top Five to Watch on BGDB's website (browngirlsdoballet.com ).
"Olivia is like a little sister to me," Addison said. "I've been coaching her on a variation she will perform at Youth America Grand Prix. She is young, talented, and absorbs and applies everything I tell her."
YAGP is the world's largest ballet competition for dancers aged 9-19, and where Sklute first spotted Addison in 2011. "Adam pulled me aside after watching two exercises at the barre," she said, "and the next thing I knew, I was in Salt Lake City."
Winston bubbles over in appreciation for Addison's mentorship, almost forgetting to mention meeting Copeland last summer, along with dance legends Raven Wilkinson and Carmen de Lavallade, at an event in New York City.
"I was studying at ABT last summer in NYC and my mom heard about an event at The Greene Space where Misty Copeland, Raven Wilkinson and Carmen de Lavallade were speaking on ballet and diversity," Winston said. "Aaron Hill, whose wife, Susan Fales-Hill, was the moderator, offered to take us backstage and meet them. I cried when Misty hugged me."
Winston's mother, Beckie Winston, said it has been eye-opening to take her daughter to summer programs and "look around to notice that she is among only a handful of African-American dancers. Having Kat here locally for Olivia to look up to means a tremendous amount to all of us."
The media interest in Copeland didn't stop with her promotion. She co-produced a ballet-themed series on Fox, has Under Armour ads, is the subject of the documentary "A Ballerina's Tale," which debuted in August, and was a recent guest on Stephen Colbert's "The Late Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live." Her patron at ABT is Valentino Carlotti, a partner at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., heading the securities division institutional client group. Carlotti has said he admires Copeland's drive and determination and relates to her because he is also a black person working in a predominantly white world.
One of the greatest inroads being made is recognizing the need for early training for young dancers of color.
"It does come down to the question of training," said Peter Merz, director of Ballet West Academy, "and ballet schools need to be open and inviting. Students are going to pick extracurricular activities in which they can feel a sense of community and they can feel camaraderie and build friendships."
Merz grew up and danced professionally in racially diverse Dayton, Ohio. Merz, who is white, said his training and professional work in Dayton and Cincinnati taught him from an early age, "it is the information you're getting from the person that is important."
Merz said he is excited about the BGDB movement and "that especially in Salt Lake we have a growing and vibrant Hispanic community and I would like to expand our outreach and continue our I CAN DO program that encourages public school students to try dance and begin ballet training young by offering scholarships."
As "The Nutcracker" quickly approaches, Addison said she is nervous about her debut as Sugar Plum Fairy. She dances the role in the cast performing Dec. 18 and the matinee on Dec. 23. As is typical in a ballet with such a long run, casting rotates; eight dancers share the role of Sugar Plum Fairy.
"But I love dancing classical ballet because it is hard and beautiful and it drives me," she said. "I'm excited to be in this moment in history. I think the future for black ballerinas looks bright very bright."
Ballet West's 'The Nutcracker'
Ballet West celebrates 60 years of staging "The Nutcracker," featuring Tchaikovsky's classic score, magical costumes and fairytale sets, with 23 matinee and evening performances for the holiday season.
When • Dec. 10-27: 7 p.m. on Dec. 10-12, 15-19, 21-23, 26; 5 p.m. on Dec. 13, 20; 2 p.m. on Dec. 12, 19, 22-23, 26; and noon Dec. 13, 20, 24, 27
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20 to $88; http://www.balletwest.org, 801-869-6900; Art Tix
Special package • $125; "Ultimate Nutcracker Experience," which includes an orchestra center seat (within the first 10 rows), a 60th Anniversary commemorative program book and a limited-edition snowflake ornament
Sugar Plum Parties • $10; after each matinee (except Dec. 24), Ballet West will host onstage Sugar Plum Parties for children. Youngsters can join the Sugar Plum Fairy and other favorite characters from the ballet for refreshments and a special treat.