There’s another new tell-all book out by someone who made history, but she’s not an embarrassed former Trump administration official or an embattled TV news anchor. Her name is Charlotte Nebres. Her memorable achievement was being the first Black dancer to perform the role of Marie, the little girl at the center of the New York City Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker. That was in December 2019, when Charlotte was 11.
Now she’s 13 and has written her first book—a second impressive feat. Charlotte and the Nutcracker: The True Story of a Girl Who Made Ballet History is a picture book. It captures the on-stage magic of The Nutcracker but also the backstage sweat, as seen through the eyes of a singular young ballerina, and with the help of charming illustrations by Alea Marley. Air Mail Pilot particularly admires a two-page spread showing Charlotte’s point of view as she steps onto the stage alone for the first time in front of a packed house. Scary but dazzling!
Charlotte started dancing at a young age and was particularly inspired as a six-year-old by seeing Misty Copeland, the first Black principal dancer with American Ballet Theater. As she writes (in the third person): “Charlotte perches on her velvety chair. There’s the ballerina everyone’s talking about! Her brown skin grows bright in the stage lamps. This ballerina looks like family. Charlotte can see herself—she can see herself getting up on that stage, too.”
All the same, after she landed her big part, Charlotte was surprised to learn she was her company’s first Black Marie: “Huh, she thinks, that seems a little late.”
Charlotte’s story may have elements of a dream-come-true fairy tale—many kids in The Nutcracker’s audience imagine themselves up on stage—but Charlotte makes sure to emphasize all the years of training and hours and hours of rehearsal that go into being a dancer. As the book’s Charlotte keeps telling herself while working on different movements: “Not quite. Almost. There!” It’s a mantra that could apply to any activity that takes a lot of discipline and practice. (Right, Little Leaguers and spelling-bee champs?)
“There’s a lot of time in rehearsals that goes into making it happen,” Charlotte told Air Mail Pilot in a recent interview. “There’s a lot of repeating things until it gets into your muscle memory and becomes natural, especially for a role that big, because there are so many parts to it and you have to be on stage for so long.”
Like Copeland, Charlotte has been an inspiration to even younger audience members, who she occasionally met after Nutcracker performances. “Sometimes there were little girls and it was just so sweet to get to interact with them,” she said.
All told, she starred in 24 performances as Marie. (As usual, two young dancers alternated in the role, as is also the case with the part of Marie’s Prince, a major role for boys.) Like all the ballet’s kid characters, Marie is recast every year, but if you’re in the New York City area you can catch Charlotte in this season’s Nutcracker in two roles: as an angel and as a soldier. She said she particularly enjoys the latter part. The mice better watch out. —Bruce Handy
Charlotte and the Nutcracker: The True Story of a Girl Who Made Ballet History, by Charlotte Nebres, with illustrations by Alea Marley, will be published on December 21 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Twelve years after the end of World War I, a British cavalry officer named Geoffrey Brooke arrived in Egypt, accompanied by his wife, Dorothy. As the couple drove through the bustling streets of Cairo, Dorothy’s attention was captivated by the acute suffering of horses that were larger than their Arabian counterparts—Britain’s abandoned warhorses.
Skeletal, sometimes blind, and often with twisted and even broken legs, these horses, who had served in the sands of Northern Africa, were now pulling carts in the searing heat, beholden to the poorest and most desperate people in Egypt. More than a quarter of a million horses died during the war on the Western Front alone, but of this number only 58,000 were killed by enemy fire.
The overwhelming majority died from disease, injury, exposure, and poison gas as they labored in the trenches transporting men, guns, ammunition, equipment, medicine, supplies, and fuel. However, the role of these animals was far greater than their horsepower alone; the soldiers became profoundly attached to their equine companions. These animals stood by in the face of screaming shells and bullets, and it is not difficult to imagine the support they gave many a soldier in moments of terror and desperation.
Heartbreakingly, the Armistice did not bring salvation for most of the surviving horses that had served so valiantly. In many cases, they were shot rather than brought home. Worst of all was the fate of over 20,000 war horses that served in Palestine. It was considered too expensive to bring them back to England, so they were sent to Egypt, where they were given to poor laborers or to work in the notoriously cruel stone quarries.
It was these horses living out their fates, over 12 years on, that Dorothy saw when she arrived in Cairo. The first such horse she met had been confiscated from his owner by the authorities due to his appalling condition. “Old Bill,” as Dorothy called him, was “without exception the most dreadful looking animal I have ever seen in my life,” she said. “I have since dealt with hundreds as bad as he was and some even worse, but he was my very first.”
His skin was stretched tightly over his emaciated skull, and his large eyes were lifeless and senile. His clearly visible hips and wide rib cage were supported by four large swollen trembling legs. Dorothy discovered that within the next day or two he would be sent back out onto the streets of Cairo. The hospital had to consider the value of these horses to their owners, and a lame old horse could make the difference between existence and starvation.
When she learned of this, Dorothy bought Old Bill and for a few days gave him everything that she could think of to afford him some pleasure. But each day she visited him, he was standing, waiting. He was past enjoying treats such as bran mashes and straw; all he wanted to do was rest. Finally, Dorothy had Old Bill peacefully put down.
Old Bill was by no means an exception, and the scale of the issue posed a financial problem—how was Dorothy going to raise the money that was needed in order to save all the other warhorses from similar fates?
She resolved to send a letter to The Morning Post, now absorbed by The Telegraph, appealing to their readership for donations. Dorothy attached to the letter a photograph of Old Bill, who eventually became the mascot for saving all that remained in Egypt of his wartime comrades. Within a few weeks Dorothy was inundated with checks and letters of sympathy and encouragement from the British public. She went on to set up the “Old War Horse Fund” and began her task of finding, purchasing, and putting the old horses to rest.
The project grew exponentially and in 1934 Dorothy set up the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital in Cairo, now called the Brooke Hospital for Animals. Since then, Brooke has expanded to open offices in India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Senegal, Kenya, and Nicaragua.
Dorothy’s legacy has since evolved in many ways, and Brooke now delivers community training and support to owners to ensure better welfare practices. They work within local communities to develop a more sustainable model of training and equip local vets with the tools to treat working horses, donkeys, and mules all year round. Dorothy Brooke remains an inspiration to animal lovers across the world.
Monty Roberts, the American “horse whisperer” and a global ambassador for the Brooke charity, described what Dorothy’s work meant to him: “She saw suffering, and did not look the other way. She rolled up her sleeves and got to work to make the world a kinder, healthier place for the animals who serve us and love us.” —Eleanor Harmsworth
Madeleine Madden has felt like an outsider most of her life. As an aboriginal woman growing up in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, she was used to finding herself in all-white environments. Now, as an actress, she is often surrounded by all-white casts. But the 24-year-old, who has been acting for over a decade, always looked for more diverse opportunities.
In 2015, she found one, landing a starring role in Australia’s first-ever indigenous teen drama, the critically acclaimed series Ready for This. Shortly after that job, a colleague mentioned that Madeleine need not worry about perfecting her American accent because she would never work outside of Australia, an unsettling comment that’s stayed with her since.
After that, Madeleine set about proving that industry insider wrong. She made it to Hollywood a few years later, earning a major part in 2019’s Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a live-action adaptation of the beloved animated series. And she’s returned to TV with a starring role in Amazon’s The Wheel of Time. The fantasy series, which premiered in late November, has already drawn comparisons to Game of Thrones.
Madeleine started researching Robert Jordan’s novels, a collection of 14 books that inspired the series, even before she booked her 23-hour-long flight to London, where auditions for the show were taking place. “I saw that 90 million-plus copies of the book had been sold around the world,” Madeleine says. “I love fantasy, and I feel like there are no boundaries when it comes to telling stories in a fantastical world.”
The Wheel of Time centers around the “Dragon Reborn,” a prophecy that one mighty, fallen hero will return to save the world from the evil forces destroying it. Alongside Rosamund Pike, who leads the show as a mystic, Madeleine plays Egwene al’Vere, an apprentice healer and one of several characters suspected to be the dragon.
“We are looking at the world through a 21st-century lens,” Madeleine says. “We explore gender equality, race and sexual identity. And I think that is why it is so loved internationally, because people from all different backgrounds and identities can connect and relate to the people in this story.”
The show—Amazon’s most watched series premiere of 2021—is poised for longevity. Before Season One even finished airing, Madden was back in Prague filming Season Two. —Bridget Arsenault