Sarina Osaba: Dancing Her Dreams
Writer Shannon Severson
Photographer Loralei Lazurek
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. -Langston Hughes”
Ballet is beauty, strength, athleticism and endurance that is set to music and comes alive on stage. The finished product that takes the audience’s breath away is the result of years of discipline, hard work, dedication and sacrifice.
Sixteen-year-old Sarina Osaba has been studying her craft since the age of 6, after her mother, Sara, realized her daughter did entirely more dancing on the soccer field than running or kicking. At the time, the two were living in Burlington, Vermont, and Sarina still regards the stage at the Vermont Ballet Theater as the happy place she returns to in her mind. It’s also where she danced her favorite role: Clara in “The Nutcracker.”
Now in Scottsdale and studying at Master Ballet Academy, in addition to performing in her own company’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” this month, she has been selected to dance the role of Mary in Black Theatre Troupe’s production of “Black Nativity,” which runs from December 2-18 at the Helen Mason Performing Arts Center in downtown Phoenix.
“This is the first time we have used a new dancer,” says David Hemphill, Black Theatre Troupe’s executive director. “We chose Sarina first for her ability as a dancer, but also for her youthful energy and expression that comes through in someone her age. It made her a very attractive choice for the role of Mary.”
Written by jazz poet and Harlem Renaissance leader Langston Hughes, the gospel song-play is a retelling of the nativity story with an Afro-centric foundation that has become a perennial favorite in many African-American theaters across the United States. Though Black Theatre Troupe has offered “Black Nativity” periodically since 1981, this time marks a run of five consecutive years. The production has experienced consistent success and sell-out crowds, and features a host of talented local actors, singers and dancers from around the Valley. This season, the company expects the trend to continue and cross-promoted with the Phoenix Chorale’s November performances of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert, which celebrated the 50-year anniversary of Ellington’s presentation of the same work in Phoenix’s own Trinity Cathedral.
“This show is entirely gospel music,” says Hemphill. “Hughes’ poetry is woven into the story. The first act, the music progresses the Christmas story while the second act, and what makes it unique, is a contemporary gospel concert. It’s tied together by one of Hughes’ lines stating that the Three Wise Men become the deacons of the church. The characters in the Christmas story transform into a component of the modern-day church.”
Sarina’s bubbly, positive nature belies the challenges she’s surmounted over the course of her life. The road from Vermont to Arizona hasn’t been easy. In 2014, Sarina was invited to participate in a summer ballet intensive program with San Francisco Ballet. At the end of that experience, Sarina was invited to study at the San Francisco Ballet School full time, so she and Sara packed up and set out for a new ballet adventure 3,000 miles away. Sara had studied at University of California, Berkeley and lived in Oakland for 13 years, so was relatively familiar with the Bay Area. What the duo wasn’t prepared for was the extreme cost of living. Affordable housing was scarce to non-existent, and the money they had planned to use for rent ran out quickly. The two bounced around between friends’ couches and sleeping in their car. Sarina had enrolled in high school and was dancing many hours a week, but financial realities took over and the situation became untenable. When Sarina had the opportunity to study with the Contra Costa Ballet across the Bay in Walnut Creek, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The two moved to Oakland, and Sarina had roles in “The Nutcracker” performances at both Contra Costa Ballet and Oakland Ballet School Company.
In 2015 and 2016, Sarina was invited to participate in prestigious summer intensive ballet courses with International Barcelona Stage (known as IB Stage) in Spain. It was a chance to study and perform with principals from major ballet companies around the world. In 2016, Sarina trained at the Corella Dance Academy in Barcelona with two of her idols, Angel Corella and Paloma Herrera, former stars of American Ballet Theatre.
Sarina counts her IB Stage experience as the most challenging weeks of her life, but also the most rewarding. For a 15-year-old from small town Vermont living in a foreign country, long commutes via public transportation and nine hours of classes every day were both physically and mentally draining. Add to that a language barrier; even with many years of Spanish courses under her belt, conversing in the Catalan dialect took some getting used to. But she was doing what she loved and having incomparable learning experiences.
“I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t know exactly how hard,” says Sarina. “I remember the second day, I woke up in the morning and couldn’t move. But at the end of the three weeks, we had a gala performance at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the Barcelona Opera House. It was so beautiful and all these principal dancers were there. To watch my idols perform from backstage … I couldn’t believe I was actually there! It was a great experience.”
The cost of living continued to be prohibitive in California, and there is tremendous pressure on aspiring young dancers to train where they will be most challenged and have the most opportunity for improvement. Master Ballet Academy had been on Sarina’s radar for a few years, as she followed their program on Instagram and YouTube.
“I never thought I’d end up in Arizona, but I knew Master Ballet was producing great dancers,” says Sarina. “I decided we should try it out. We contacted them and they were welcoming and eager to have me join their program. We took a leap of faith. I love it here.”
The Osabas made the leap to Arizona in January 2016, and haven’t looked back. Sarina is now enrolled in online school so that she can train six to seven hours each day. While the area is more affordable than the Bay Area, it is still a financial struggle to cultivate her talent. Next on her mind is competition season, where just the cost of a professional ballet tutu costume can cost upward of $1,000. Sara has taken work as a home caregiver, where Sarina’s talent has played an unexpected, yet poignant role. At the end of life, many of Sara’s clients request a performance from Sarina, and she has been happy to oblige.
“It’s sad, but it’s touchingly beautiful,” says Sara. “Some on their deathbeds request a dance from Sarina. While she dances, their faces just light up, like they’re in heaven for just a few moments.”
Sarina is honored to have the opportunity, and is impacted by the response.
“It is inspiring to see what dance gives to people who aren’t up on stage,” says Sarina. “I get to see how it affects their lives and how it makes them feel. It’s important for me to see that what I do is a gift to others, especially seniors, who may not have the opportunity to get out as much anymore.”
It’s a testament to the transformative power of dance, and the ability of this very talented young ballerina.