Samrawit Saleem is refreshingly sharp and decisive to be just shy of 12 years old. She’s tall for her age, slender but strong, and typically styles her hair in braids, away from her face, which wears a bright smile as she glides across the stage as the first Black lead in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.
Her journey to the lead role of one of Seattle’s most well-attended holiday shows was not by happenstance. Four years ago, she was one of about 100 students inducted each year into the PNB family by way of the DanceChance program; a recruitment initiative that was launched in 1994 to give Seattle’s inner-city students an opportunity to train in classical ballet. Out of the nearly 1,300 third grade students that audition across 20 or more Seattle public schools each fall, roughly 80 are selected to move on to a free eight-week introductory ballet session at PNB.
For those that remain, PNB provides a full two-year scholarship for classes, apparel, shoes, tickets to performances, and transportation between school and PNB. (The program is sponsored by several private and corporate grants to the tune of over $125,000 each year.)
“I picked [Saleem] because in last year’s performance she was one of the Polichinelle. There’s something very eye-catching about her; something natural and fresh,” said PNB artistic director Peter Boal, who has been with the company for nearly 13 years. “The way she looked at an audience didn’t feel affected or studied or like acting.”
Boal said he has chosen the Balanchine version of The Nutcracker performance for the rewarding choreography it provides dancers and the engaging production experience it provides the audience. With lots of steps, counts, and high-quality delivery that doesn’t come natural for kids, Boal encourages the challenge in his young dancers and has faith Saleem will captivate the audience.
PNB has been supporting programming like DanceChance through funding from The National Endowment for the Arts, which has given PNB close to $1 million over the course of 20 years serving, what Boal says, is about 20,000 students annually, with in-school instruction, free performances and other engaging activities.
Saleem is nothing short of a culmination of PNB’s work toward a more inclusive ballet community.
Her schedule these days includes intensive after-school rehearsals and performances three to four days each week. She reaches home well into the evening, just in time for dinner with her family and to complete homework—not to mention a bit of computer coding she’s been learning through the years. Saturdays include a full day of practice and matinee and evening performances.
In a call with Saleem, the precocious tween speaks with an air of accomplishment even after an afternoon of rehearsals and long evening of homework ahead of her. She says that the schedule is demanding, [but] it “pushes her to manage her time and meet her school deadlines” while also making sure her choreography is pristine to “make Clara come alive.”
When asked about how her role has differed from dancing in the main cast years prior, she mentions having to communicate feelings and expressions openly to her audience.
“There’s a lot of acting that goes into it. Clara is a very joyful person, so when I’m dancing I have to make sure the audience can tell what I’m doing to help [them] understand [the story] better,” she said. “It’s all about your presentation and how you decide to do the movements.”
Of the five students who have been cast as Clara in the last four years of the show, two were white, one was Asian, and one was of Japanese and Spanish descent. Saleem, who will perform in 20 of the 30 shows this season, is of African American and Ethiopian heritage.
“Initially, I was nervous going into all of the choreography I have to remember. My musicality is good, my timing is good. I’m a little nervous, but I know I'll do fine because that is what rehearsal is for,” said Saleem.
“I could chip away at the naturalness that [she] has but I don’t want to diminish the impact that she’s born with,” said Boal. “She will hold the attention of an audience successfully. They’re going to want to see this whole story through her eyes.”