Pennsylvania Ballet’s Sensory-Friendly Performance of The Nutcracker Provides a True Holiday GiftIt is time for you and your children to immerse yourselves in sugar plum fairies, the land of the sweets, and other delights, with the return of a favorite holiday tradition, The Pennsylvania Ballet’s memorable presentation of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.
The Pennsylvania Ballet will present George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music, from Friday, December 8, to Sunday, Dec. 31.
In addition, for the second year, the ballet will present a “sensory friendly” performance at noon on Wednesday, Dec. 27.
This performance has been specially adjusted to provide a relaxed atmosphere that is welcoming and inclusive of a wide range of sensory, learning, and communication differences, including autism.
The program gives individuals with autism, and other special needs, the space to move around, permission to speak during the performances, and areas to decompress with assistance from trained staff.
There are also Program and Facility Guide Books which outline the story of The Nutcracker with visual images and layout of the Academy of Music.
The inaugural year, in 2016, was a great success, with more than 1,000 visitors in attendance, and so the Pennsylvania Ballet wanted additional families to enjoy the beloved tradition of The Nutcracker.
The dancers from The School of Pennsylvania Ballet join company members in this exquisite production with magical costumes and sets.
The iconic Tchaikovsky score, performed live by the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra with accompaniment by the Philadelphia Boys Choir, makes this classic gem that audiences will love, and return to see year after year as part of their family holiday traditions.
Founded in 1963 by Balanchine student and protégée Barbara Weisberger, the Pennsylvania Ballet is one of the nation’s leading ballet companies.
In its most diverse season yet, the Pennsylvania Ballet presents six programs featuring two full length classical ballets, Balanchine classics, contemporary works, world premieres, and the Philadelphia holiday tradition, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.
“The excitement for George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker continues to grow each year as Philadelphians enjoy the holidays with us,” explained Angel Corella. “We are excited to continue to bring this holiday tradition to Philadelphia and make it more accessible to all through our Community Engagement programs including our sensory friendly performance.”
The Nutcracker’s young dancers come from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, which offers the highest caliber dance education of any program in the Greater Philadelphia area. This program provides its students with exceptional technical training and unparalleled performance opportunities.
Founded by Weisberger, the school carries on his honored tradition of — and devotion to — developing young artists and preparing them to become successful professionals in today’s competitive ballet landscape.
The following are exclusive interviews with Sarah Cooper, Pennsylvania Ballet’s director of community engagement, and Charlie Miller, deputy director of Art-Reach; the local non-profit that developed the sensory-friendly performance.Miller explained that his organization, Art-Reach enriches lives by connecting under-served audiences with cultural experiences so that they may enjoy and benefit from the transformative power of the arts. Founded in 1986, Art-Reach is the only organization in Philadelphia solely devoted to this mission. To date, Art-Reach has served more than 248,000 people in schools, hospitals and residential facilities.
What is the goal in offering a sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker?
Charlie Miller: The clear aim is to understand the larger perspective. Any time
a cultural organization, or arts organization, is able to offer sensory friendly experiences, they are inviting in an audience that might not be able to attend otherwise. When the Pennsylvania Ballet offered this program, for the first-time last year, it was the first time this had happened on the Kimmel Center campus.
Is this a major accomplishment?
CM: Definitely. People with disabilities and families who have individuals with special needs came out last year and it is wonderful for the Pennsylvania Ballet to invite everybody to enter into a holiday tradition that everybody should have access to.
What is the way the sensory-friendly performance is being handled?
CM: We moved away from adjusted performances.
What do you mean by that?
CM: We are not asking the orchestra or the dancers to adjust anything, and we’ve –made it a priority that every behavior is accepted and embraced. The house lights are up. The ushers are told not to correct behavior if someone wants to twirl or get up, it will be considered a ‘shh free’ zone. Everything is done so the guests are more comfortable.
What else takes place?
CM: There is a cool down space that is staffed by volunteers from Temple University and Art-Reach so that guests who need a break may exit the theater quickly, go to the space and still see the show on a large TV, and maybe go back and rejoin the audience.
There understand there is a local professor who is an international leader in creating inclusive sensory-friendly programs.
CM: Yes, Roger Ideishi, a Temple University professor, is an international leader in this endeavor. He creates the “know before you go guides” that are emailed to families when they buy the tickets. This gives parents an opportunity to review these social stories with their children, and adults with special needs, so that they are prepared for what they are going to see on the stage. We work with the Kimmel Center and Academy of Music staff to make everything run as smoothly as possible.
What is the overall goal of this program?
CM: I would say that it is making individuals and families more comfortable in public, and more comfortable at social events, and using engagement with the arts as a means to doing this. This is vitally important to all of us.What is so special about The Nutcracker?
SARAH COOPER: It is a time-honored tradition that has been enjoyed by many generations of Philadelphia families. It is passed down to the next generation, and it is like going to Macy’s to see the light show or heading to the Christmas Village. All of this is part of the holiday tradition.
So, would you say that if you have never seen this show, or you have seen it for many years, there is something for you and your family?
SC: Yes, I would. While the choreography doesn’t change, one of the aspects of this show that I love so much is that the way the dancers perform each show makes it individual, unique and extremely exciting.
Tell me about the young dancers in the show.
SC: The Nutcracker has a huge cast of young dancers from the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet. There are many siblings who have danced in this ballet, continue to want to be part of it, and look forward to moving up and growing with the ballet.
They are so young; yet extremely professional.
SC: Yes, I agree. The Pennsylvania Ballet prides itself on this.
Why was this sensory-friendly performance important to the Pennsylvania Ballet?
SC: Our partnership with Art-Reach was a natural next step in order to reach a broader base of our audience. It also goes a long way to achieve our goals since our artistic director wants the dance to be accessible to all people.
What was the overall feedback after last year’s sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker?SC: We received really fabulous feedback. Everything about it was very positive. It was entertaining, a great holiday tradition, and we love to share it with wider audiences. It is the exact same production throughout the run, it is just the front of the house that changes.
What did you hear from the families who attended last year?
SC: They said it was a really positive experience. Most people were enraptured by the show, and they loved the idea that they could bring the entire family instead of having to separate with their special needs child. This is an activity that the entire family can attend together, which is a very important tradition for the holidays.
It is a vital learning opportunity for those who otherwise might have been left out.
This is starting a trend. Early this year I also attended a wonderful sensory-friendly performance of the Pennsylvania Orchestra.
SC: Yes. The Kimmel Center partners are watching the Pennsylvania Ballet’s leadership and realizing how engaging this audience is. The ballet taking this first step was the hole in the damn of a trend of museums and other performing companies doing this, including Broadway theaters.
Will there be other opportunities for local families to enjoy other sensory-friendly performances presented by the Pennsylvania Ballet?
SC: Yes. In the spring we will have A Prince Charming as part of our family series, which runs about an hour and is tailored for young audiences. It will take place at the Prince Theatre.
Why should families come to see this production of The Nutcracker?
SC: George Balanchine’s Nutcracker has so many different aspects of the story to capture the imagination of the different people who attend. The show involves characters of different ages, the music and choreography; there is something to love for a lot of different interests.
For further information on the Pennsylvania Ballet, please go to: http://paballet.org/programs/the-nutcracker/, Or call: call 215-551-7000.
For information on Art-Reach go to: www.art-reach.org.
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