Sensory-friendly ‘Nutcracker’ performance welcomes all families to the ballet

Pennsylvania Ballet Corps de Ballet member Nayara Lopes dances in 'The Nutcracker.' (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.)

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker, with choreography by George Balanchine and the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is a grand holiday tradition, part youngsters’ dance recital and part heavenly professional dancing. It opens on a family party. Later, a kindly magician’s gift of a nutcracker comes to life in a young girl’s dreams. The nutcracker fights the mouse king, and whisks her away to the land of candy and flowers, where angels glide across the stage.

Children fill the stage and the audience at every performance, so I was excited to discover that the Ballet offers a tailored performance environment to welcome children with autism and other sensory challenges, plus anyone who needs a more relaxed environment.  

Come as who you are

Roger Ideishi, a program director and associate professor of occupational therapy at Temple University, has created sensory-friendly experiences for arts institutions around the country. He said the key is not to change the Nutcracker — “that diminishes the whole experience” — nor to try to change the audience. “We don’t want them to be anything but who they are. The experience is for them to be welcome and accepted.” Accordingly, he prepares audience services and staff, such as the ushers and ticket takers, to put aside the usual theater etiquette and welcome children who may move around the hall or make noise. He tells the dancers to just get into their mental space, because those things don’t necessarily mean they’ve lost the children’s attention; They are just as likely to be enjoying the performance in their own way.

The Pennsylvania Ballet offers online resources for families interested in attending, including links to “Pre-Visit Stories” that Ideishi created to prepare kids for what they’ll experience when they arrive at the theater, and describe the story and the characters they will see in the ballet.

A flexible space

When I talked to Charlie Miller, deputy director of Art-Reach (an organization working to provide access to the arts for underserved groups), he described some additional accommodations that parents can expect for their children.

The lights remain on low and the doors to the lobby remain open during the performance, so that an overstimulated child can see an exit point just by turning around. There is a quiet space away from the performance hall, but Ideishi said that children can also watch from the doorway if it makes them more comfortable.

Children (and their families) can move around the theater and change seats as necessary if their comfort level changes. Some children will only be comfortable close to the stage, Isheidi explained, while the needs of others may change over the performance.  

The sound of the orchestra is not reduced, but children who are sensitive to sound can borrow headsets available in the lobby or bring their own sound-cancelling headsets from home. Children may also use fidget toys.

What about the dancers?

Dancer Emily Davis will find herself playing many different roles in the sensory-friendly Nutcracker (but look for her among the snowflakes!). She told me that the performance is a special moment for all the dancers. Last year’s sensory-friendly performance was so moving, she said, that it inspired her to teach for Art-Reach in the summer. This year, she has some great advice for parents who want to bring their children, whatever their needs, to the theater.

“I think the whole point of the show is to give them the opportunity, in the audience, to be who they are and enjoy the show the best they can. And the parents should too, when they are in the audience. They shouldn’t be worried that their kid is making too much noise, because we are prepared for it back behind the wings. We know the sensory-friendly audience. . .. Our priority is just that everybody enjoys the show.”

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker is coming up on Wednesday, December 27, at 12pm at the Academy of Music. Tickets ($20 to $85) are available online or by calling 215-893-1999.

At right: Dancer Emily Davis. (Photo courtesy of the PA Ballet.)

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