Interview: Meet the first Black ‘Clara’ in The Nutcracker in Colorado Ballet history

· Dec. 23, 2023, 4:00 am
In taking the lead role of Clara, ballerina Sheridan Guerin became the Colorado Ballet’s first Black woman to be cast in the role for its annual performance of “The Nutcracker.” Photographed during a rehearsal at the company’s Armstrong Center for Dance in Denver.

The holiday season is filled with many annual traditions, and for many that tradition includes attending a production of The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s classic Christmas-themed ballet has been remixed and reimagined, in more ways than one can count.

This year Colorado Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker had a bit of a remix of its own, with one of its principal dancers starring as the first Black “Clara” in Colorado Ballet history. Clara is the central female character in the production.

Sheridan Guerin joined the Colorado Ballet as a Studio Company Member for the 2019/2020 season and was eventually promoted to the Corps de Ballet in 2022. The significance of the distinction is not lost on Guerin, a Texas native who danced in Oklahoma and Atlanta before finding a dance home here in Colorado.

Trailblazing Colorado dance icon Cleo Parker Robinson says she applauds the milestone as a long-needed – and long-deserved – step in the right direction for Colorado’s dance community, which has long been criticized for its dearth of diversity.

“I am just thrilled and I'm so excited, Sheridan is just a beautiful dancer and extraordinary; and for her to take that role in such a short amount of time, going from apprentice to demi soloist, to soloist to principal in this short amount of time is magnificent,” says Robinson, who’s led her own holiday tradition for more than 30 years now, hosting and dancing in her annual production of Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum. “It's just extraordinary because it was just a few years ago that we began to work with IBD, the International Association of Blacks in Dance, to really look at Black ballerinas and placing them in major ballet companies around the country. So, it’s wonderful to see it manifested in this wonderful way. Even though it's taken 62 years for Colorado Ballet and longer for American Ballet Theater, with Misty Copeland, it is happening!”

Guerin is giddy about the role, but is also humbled to be starring as the first Black Clara in The Nutcracker  in Colorado Ballet history.  Chandra Thomas Whitfield recently stopped by the Ballet’s headquarters in Denver’s Sante Fe Arts District with a group of young ballerinas of color in-training in tow, who agreed to help interview Guerin about her story, the importance of diversity in dance and what making Colorado history means to her.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: How does it feel to be a part of Colorado history?

Sheridan Guerin: Amazing. I didn't think anything like this was possible for me, especially coming from a small town and just the background that I have. I started off as a hip hop dancer, so it wasn't really something that I knew I wanted to do. Ballet wasn't something that I was just, I didn't start at a very young age. Usually people start around age three or four, sometimes like seven, but I started at age 12. So, it was quite late. I felt like I had to play catch up. It means a lot and I'm really blessed to be able to make history here at Colorado Ballet.

Thomas Whitfield: You actually stole my question. I was wondering if 12 was late to start?

Guerin: Yeah, it was pretty late but after I started ballet I fell in love with it. So, that's when I fully devoted myself to ballet. Before that, it was kind of more of a recreational thing that I did after school. I also did swimming, track, cross-country, along with dance. But after starting ballet and being in the whole atmosphere and world of it all, I fell in love with it.

Thomas Whitfield: You said you didn't think this was possible for you. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Guerin: I think that I just didn't know anything about the ballet world in general. I come from a very artsy family, but that's in different ways. My uncle is a jazz musician. I have a bunch of singers in my family, but nothing that was dance-related. I was the kid at weddings that would always be in the center trying to get everyone to dance.

Thomas Whitfield: I'm trying to picture you recruiting people for the Cha Cha Slide or the Cupid Shuffle.

Guerin: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was doing. I was in the center moving and grooving and everyone was like, I was pulling people out and they were following my lead and I think I was kind of like the dance party starter in a way, which I love. I love to have a good time.

Thomas Whitfield: You were the hype person?

Guerin: Yes, so that was something that I loved and I knew I loved to move, but I didn't know that ballet was something that was in the cards for me. I just didn't know about it. So my mom enrolled me in dance classes and I actually had a friend who inspired me to dance, because she was taking classes. I remember we would make up dances during rehearsal and she had a lot of techniques that I didn't know about. I was like, how are you doing a pirouette? She was calling different steps and using terminology that I had no idea about or what it was. So that made me interested in it. So, from her inspiring me I enrolled in dance. From there I noticed that I was the only Black dancer in a class of maybe 10. So, I was like, I don't know if this is really possible for me and it kind of felt like sometimes you stand out in a way that you're not sure is good or bad. You just have all these insecurities, but I kind of used those to my strength. I kind of just took that and ran with it. It inspired me to do more.

Thomas Whitfield: What are your thoughts about that in terms of the importance of diverse representation in dance?

Guerin: I think it's very important in ballet. We're always looking for minorities in dance and it's just important for representation. I hope that me stepping into the role of Clara is especially inspiring brown and Black kids in the audience to want to start dance, because it's important for representation. We always want more diversity in any art form. It's something that I value a lot.

Thomas Whitfield: What have been some of the more interesting responses and reactions to you showing up as an African-American ballerina? 

Guerin: People are shocked that I am the first Black Clara. They’re like, how is it 2023 and you’re the first Black Clara here? To be Clara, you have to fit a certain physique. There have been many diverse people here at Colorado Ballet, but do they fit the build? For Clara, someone has to look young and play a little girl in a ballet. So, I think that's just something that I guess it presented itself at a good time. Everything played out and worked out in my favor, I guess.

Thomas Whitfield: Did you dream of being in The Nutcracker when you were a child in Texas?

Guerin: I didn't know anything about ballet and I didn't know there was such a thing as a Nutcracker. I really didn't until I learned about it. And then my studio at the time, they were doing The Nutcracker, so I was Clara in their production of the Nutcracker. That was my first time ever doing Clara, but it was like a smaller studio.

Thomas Whitfield: So what does that mean to have the lead role in the quintessential holiday production of The Nutcracker?

Guerin: Honestly, I pinch myself. I think it's something that I'm really thankful for and blessed that Colorado Ballet's staff has given me the opportunity to be able to step into this role and have trusted me with this role to be able to represent Colorado Ballet, represent the people in our community and I just feel really thankful that I have the opportunity to step into a role like this. It's something that I don't take lightly. I love playing Clara. As a kid, you always hold on to moments in your life and there's times where I'm like, ‘oh, I'm pulling from this moment’ when I'm on stage from when I was a kid. It's really special to be able to almost go back in time when I was a kid.

Thomas Whitfield: What has it been like preparing for the role of Clara?

Guerin: It's been good. Usually we have rehearsals for Clara and Prince, for an hour to a 30 minute rehearsal, maybe three or four times a week. I would have to say that the rehearsals are something that I really value. It helps me with going onstage and being able to be confident and feel secure in that role.

Thomas Whitfield: What do you love most about being in The Nutcracker?

Guerin: I think just the amount of shows that we do and every show is completely different. The party scene is actually my favorite part of The Nutcracker, because there's so many other people involved. We kind of just feed off of each other's energy. So one show we could be super giggly and goofy and another show we could just be doing what's routine. So it's fun to play off of everyone's energy in the party scene. It's just where we get the most laughs I think, too. So it gives us energy when the audience enjoys it.

Thomas Whitfield: Well, we've spoken today about the importance of diverse representation in general, but also specifically in dance and ballet. Now let’s turn it over to a group of students with us today who are studying ballet.They have agreed to be my co-interviewers today and they have some questions for you too.

Kendall Johnson: My name is Kendall Johnson and I'm 15 years old. I will be 16 next month. I've been dancing for 12, almost 13 years and my question has two parts. The first part is how do you feel that it took 62 years for a person of color to be casted for a principal role in the Colorado Ballet performance of The Nutcracker?

Guerin: Nice to meet you Kendall. To your first question, I think in a way it's kind of disappointing that it's taken this long for there to be the first brown female principal role being done. But I would say that it also is amazing because just now I've made history. There are so many people that can come after me and hopefully aspire to be in Colorado Ballet's company and continue to add new and exciting things to the role.

Johnson: What does this mean to you personally that you were chosen to be Clara?

Guerin: Well, it means the world. I feel really blessed and able to dance and be a part of something and be a part of history every single day. I kind of think, I can't believe it, it's just something that I'm shocked about. I talk with my mom a lot about it, just like the feelings and just I think back to my family's history and just worth ethic and not giving up and being able to be strong in moments where you might feel like you are insecure or you feel shy. I try to embody the past of my family and how they have done so many historic things that even you might not even hear about because we come from a small town. I think a lot about making them proud especially and everyone else too.

Leilani Walker: Hi, I'm Leilani Walker. I've been studying ballet since I was three and I'm nine years old now. My question is, do you feel happy that you got this role?

Guerin: Yes, I feel very happy. It brings me a lot of joy, especially being able to tap into the moments where I feel like I am tapping into when I was a kid. And I think that just sparks even more joy inside of me because when you get older, you kind of forget the moments of when you were a kid. So being in The Nutcracker really helps remind me of the really fun moments that I had when I was a kid. So I kind of just tap into my 12 or 13-year-old self.

Walker: Do you think you'll accomplish more great things in life after this?

Guerin: I hope so. I could only hope so,

Samara Walker: I'm Samara Walker. I am 10 years old and I've been studying dance since I was three. My question is, what role of support did your family, friends or mentors play in your dance journey?

Guerin: They played a huge role. My mom and my dad supported me very much throughout my entire upbringing when it comes to dance in general and all the extra things that I did around dance: like track swimming, cross-country. Honestly, they were just trying to keep up with me. I think with all of what I wanted to do. I remember my mom would drive me an hour to my studio every single day. I have an older sister and she helps with my confidence, especially if I'm hard on myself, she brings me back to reality. She’ll be like, “don't be so hard on yourself.” She often makes jokes, just lighthearted jokes that really take my mind off of something if I'm feeling down. Yeah, I really am grateful that I had that support. 

Walker: My second question is, could you share a memorable moment or performance that stands out in your career?

Guerin: Yes. I think the first time that I did Clara with Colorado Ballet, three years ago in 2021, that was something that was really memorable for me. That was my first time ever stepping into the role and I was really, really nervous. I have never been a lead in The Nutcracker or in a ballet in a medium-sized company or in a ballet company in general. But after the show I was relieved and excited and really happy that it went well. I was just really happy and I remember that first show playing Clara.

Mission Buckley: My name is Mission Buckley, I'm 12 years old and I've been dancing since I was three; so I've been dancing ballet for nine years. My first question is, did you or your family expect you to be in this role?

Guerin: No, they did not. I had zero expectations at all. When I joined Colorado Ballet, they only expected me to work hard and hopefully get the roles that I wanted to get. We never thought I’d be in the position that I am in, but they are really proud of me.

Buckley: What was your reaction when you found out that you got the role?

Guerin: Excited. Excited, but also nervous. I was like, “oh my gosh, that means that I'm going to be the only one on stage sometimes.” There's just nerves that come with being the only one on stage and everyone's looking at you. I also thought it was really special at the time. I didn't know that I was the first black Clara at Colorado Ballet, but I asked around, and was like, “am I the first?” I didn't assume that was the case. I was really excited once I found that I was.

Alina Rivera Archuleta Medford: Hi, my name is Alina Rivera Archuleta Medford and I am 12.I've been dancing since I was three. What was your biggest struggle playing Clara?

Guerin: My biggest struggle was my nerves. I had a lot of things that I wanted to bring to the role and so I was getting overwhelmed with what I specifically wanted to stand out as the first Black Clara. I think that having to act is what made me nervous. I think acting and confidence was something that I was really nervous about and I wanted to really put my own spin on it because in all, there are five different Claras and we each have our own way of acting and reacting to different things; so my reactions would look completely different than someone else's reactions. So, I just wanted to make sure that everything came across clearly in what I wanted to deliver to the audience. I just wanted to make people laugh. I love how there's so many shows in The Nutcracker and so if one show, if I feel like I didn't do what I wanted, I could try something else; try something different for the next show. 

Thomas Whitfield: What are some things that you wanted to bring to the role that you believe you succeeded in?

Guerin: As a kid I was a bit sassy and I think I still might be a little bit sassy, so I wanted to bring that. For instance, in The Nutcracker, when Clara thinks that she's about to get a present and then they hand the present to Fritz, the present completely passes her up. So there's a moment when a lot of the Claras will look disappointed, I’m kind of like, “really, you’re going to pass me up?” Then I wanted to do some things in the Snow Pas de Deux scene.  I am from Dallas and it doesn't really snow a lot in Dallas. So when it snows in Colorado, I swear I'm like a kid at the candy store. I love when it snows. So whenever it starts snowing on stage, I think of it like it's actual snow and I hope the audience can tell that my face lights up. Even now, when it snows I stand at the window in my apartment and watch the snow fall. That's another place in the ballet where I wanted it to really come across, that I am seeing snow for the first time because every single time it snows, it's like I’m seeing it for the first time. It's so magical to me.

Amara Rivera Medford: My name is Amara and I've been dancing from the age of two years old and I've been dancing five years now; now I'm eight years old. My question is, what is something you have to work on the most?

Guerin: Something that I constantly am working on is my technique when it comes to all the different steps in The Nutcracker. I am trying to improve every single thing that I work on in rehearsal. I'm trying to hopefully get better at those things and try to bring them to the stage.

Rivera Medford: Did your teachers ever teach you ballet or hip hop?

Guerin: Yes, my teachers did. I had ballet teachers, I had hip hop dance teachers, modern dance teachers and jazz. The only technique I didn't do is tap but I had some great teachers.

Rivera Medford: Did you ever do competitions?

Guerin: Yes, I did. Whenever I started off as a hip hop dancer, we did competitions and I also did YAGP Youth America Grand Prix, which is a ballet competition. I did several competitions, which really helped me with my confidence in being able to perform in front of judges and an audience.

Kendall Johnson: This is Kendall again, my other question is what is your advice for young girls of color who either want to do dance or are already in dance?

Guerin: Just enroll! Start classes, even if it's just hip hop or jazz or contemporary dance classes. Start now so that you can decide whether you like it or not. Then from there, fully get into it. And yeah, and I would say just be confident. That’s easier said than done, I know but I would say just start doing it now as early as you can. I wish I would've started earlier, or could have, but it's okay.

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