A: It's definitely shifted and changed throughout my training and the course of my career. Growing up, Paloma Herrera was the ballerina I looked to. She was just so inspiring to me. Raven Wilkinson was kind of that person who really changed my point of view and perspective on my career and how I wanted to approach it and represent the black dancers in the classical ballet world. She really allowed me to have a clearer vision of what my purpose is.
But I feel like I'm surrounded by the best dancers in the world every day. It's amazing to be able to have that type of inspiration around me.
Q: Let's talk "Nutcracker." You have a deep connection to this ballet. Take us back to that time you first danced it.
A: I had been dancing for, I think, eight months. I did the role of Clara. It was the first ballet I ever performed with the San Pedro City Ballet. The following year I did the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The second "Nutcracker" I ever performed in was Debbie Allen's production of "The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker." I might've been 14 or 15; I did it two years. It was a very diverse cast. It was amazing to share the stage with Debbie Allen. I've done 'Nutcracker' for most of my career in different productions. Just hearing the music makes you think of Christmastime and wintertime.
Q: What makes this "Nutcracker" special?
A: Alexi's production, I think, is my favorite that I've ever done. The dancing is just so free. It's not like the traditional version. It has kind of a more modern contemporary movement to it. It's just a really exciting version.
And I'm excited to be dancing the lead part with Daniil Simkin. We've never done this role together before. It's also so nice for me to be able to do this at home in California.
Q: Your story -- growing up with a single mom in a cramped motel room with five siblings and becoming America's most famous ballet dancer -- is a classic triumph-over-adversity tale. What was it like to discover dance?
A: I would say it was magical. I had never experienced anything like it. To be able to have this escape and be in the studio and feel like I actually am living this fairy tale. There was nothing in my life that was anything remotely close to a fairy tale -- so it was such a magical time of discovery for me.