MYS Oregon to Iberia

‘In a Nutshell’ – Oregon Ballet Theatre premieres a sensory friendly version of ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®’

Creating the special condensed version of the holiday classic, which will premiere on December 19, is part of Artistic Director Dani Rowe’s vision for making classical dance more welcoming to a broader audience.

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Oregon Ballet Theatre presents a one-hour sensory friendly version of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker® on Tuesday, December 19 at the Keller Auditorium. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
Oregon Ballet Theatre presents a one-hour sensory friendly version of ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®’ on Tuesday, December 19 at the Keller Auditorium. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Some years ago, just after her first daughter was born, Dani Rowe began to choreograph an original dance for Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet, in collaboration with the city’s children’s museum. The audience would include plenty of kids — some on the autism spectrum — and their families. And she had an ideal subject. “My mother has worked for many years with autistic children,” remembers Rowe. “I was inspired in particular by one child she worked with when I was growing up. I wanted to create a ballet that told his story and his family’s story and the impact his world had on theirs and vice versa.

Along with a story that many of the kids could relate to, the performance of Rowe’s Adam’s Key was presented in “in an atmosphere where children felt comfortable and secure.”

When she became artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre last year, Rowe remembered that experience, as well as myriad other dance, music and theater productions across the country that were presented in ways that made them more comfortable for kids and people on the autism spectrum or who have neurological conditions. And she was determined to bring such shows to OBT. 

In Act 2, Christopher Kaiser as Candy Cane leaps and dances to an invigorating Russian trepak dance. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
In Act 2, Christopher Kaiser as Candy Cane leaps and dances to an invigorating Russian trepak dance. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

On Tuesday, December 19, OBT joins the sensory friendly corps de ballet by presenting a one-hour performance of In a Nutshella condensed version of Act 2 from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. This special show — the only one in this year’s Nutcracker run — is aimed at families with young children, audience members on the autism spectrum, or anyone who might want to try a more relaxed, informal atmosphere to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic.

Widening the spectrum

For the past few years, many theaters, ballet companies (including Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet), movie theaters, Broadway productions, operas, and even Rockettes shows have offered sensory friendly performances — or in Wal-Mart’s case, shopping hours. Other arts organizations have also designed performances for specific audiences. For example, New York’s famed Carnegie Hall has embarked on a series of Well-Being Concerts aimed primarily at people affected by the justice system or involved in health care. 

It’s part of a broader trend in the arts of recognizing the value of audiences and artists from outside the usual suspects — there’s even a new show on Broadway that puts autistic people onstage. So when OBT decided to add a sensory friendly show, the organization was joining “a nationwide conversation around being more inclusive, creating a more relaxed atmosphere” at performances, says Robin Ulibarri, the company’s Interim Director of Education and Community Engagement.

Sometimes called “autism friendly,” “family friendly,” “relaxed,” or other designations, sensory friendly performances accommodate not just people on the autism spectrum, but also audience members with neurological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as young children and anyone else for whom sensory stimulation, long stretches stuck in a seat, and other aspects of performances can be challenging. Experts suggest that up to a third of people may experience sensory challenges, a number likely increasing “as our world gets busier, noisier, brighter, and more crowded.”

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Jessica Lind as Coffee in OBT's 2022 production of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
Jessica Lind as Coffee in OBT’s 2022 production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®“. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

There’s no set formula and modifications will depend on the nature of the show, the venue, the audience, even the budget. They can include adjustments in lighting and sound, relaxed rules about audience movement, dress and behavior during the show, allowing companion attendants or service animals, providing “sensory kits” with fidget toys and other helpful objects, and, maybe most importantly, telling audiences in advance what to expect. Whether it involves dance, theater, music, lectures, or even magic, the common goal is to make shows more comfortable and welcoming to a wider range of attendees, those who can benefit even more than traditional audiences from the arts’s power to bring healing, comfort, and joy.

Baby steps

In devising its sensory friendly performance, OBT had plenty of resources to draw upon. “Many, many organizations throughout the US are doing incredible work,” Rowe says, “trying to reach as many people as possible.” OBT sought tips from several arts organizations in Portland and beyond.

The company also had a valuable resource in-house. Along with Rowe’s experience with other companies’ sensory friendly efforts, OBT’s own accompanist, Karen Lam-America, who has a son on the spectrum, had participated in sensory friendly shows in her previous work and contributed strong advocacy and advice for OBT’s production. 

While sensory friendly music concerts (including one staged a few years ago by Portland jazz musician and bandleader Ezra Weiss) have become more common, adding visual components, as in theater or dance, adds more potential pitfalls for sensitive audience members. And ballet, in particular, comes with some historical impediments to evolving performance traditions. 

Isaac Lee as Mother Ginger and OBT School students in Act 2 of the 2022 production of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker."
Isaac Lee as Mother Ginger and OBT School students in Act 2 of the 2022 production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®.”

“With the ballet, there is a culture where you dress up and enter into a different magical world,” says Rowe. “There’s an etiquette, [expected] ways of behaving while you watch the performance. You might put on a fancy dress and even a little accent. I’m all for upholding that tradition. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s all it is. We can be very clear which performances are relaxed performances and which are not, so people know what they’re signing up for.”

As a mother of two young children, Rowe is especially aware of the barriers traditional performances can pose to families. “We’re asked to sit still and not say anything, while absorbing art,” she explains. “But especially for young children, asking questions is in their nature. To be in an environment where they can ask and we as caregivers can answer and encourage an atmosphere of curiosity is really exciting to me.”

In choosing the ever-popular kid magnet The Nutcracker as its pilot project, OBT wound up widening its audience for the sensory friendly show — and its approach. “It started as making the performance accessible to people on the spectrum,” Ulibarri recalls, “but it became more than that. It’s creating a space or environment for families that include young children and want to be in a more relaxed atmosphere.”

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Creating that environment included adjusting lights and sound to be less intense, and allowing audience members to walk around, enter and exit at will, including to a quiet room with yoga mats, pillows, and blankets so the audience members can lie down. OBT will also provide “sensory kits” with fidget toys, noise-reducing headphones, and communication cards for non-verbal audience members. 

The company was already providing some accommodations for performances that doubled as sensory friendly elements, like audio descriptions for visually impaired audience members and a “touch tour” that encourages kids to engage with scenic objects. 

Other adaptations were new. The primary addition was a what’s called a “social narrative that reduces anxieties about the unknowns of dance,” Ulibarri explains, “breaking down the experience into clear steps so people know what they’re getting into.” The narrative also “tells the audience where they can find resources to better understand it and even where they can go to calm themselves down,” she says. 

Brian Simcoe as the Cavalier and Carly Wheaton as the Sugar Plum Fairy in OBT’s 2022 “Nutcracker.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
Brian Simcoe as the Cavalier and Carly Wheaton as the Sugar Plum Fairy in OBT’s 2022 “Nutcracker.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Replete with photos, the narrative is essentially a slide show with simple descriptions of the event and its moments and components that takes the audience through every step of the performance they’re about to encounter. Some examples: “I am going to watch a live ballet performance at Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland,” says the first card. “When I arrive at Keller Auditorium there may be lots of other people attending the performance, too. I will walk through security metal detectors. These may beep if I have any metal in my pockets. 

“Next, I will show my ticket to a person at the door. My ticket may be a paper ticket or an electronic ticket on my phone. The person will scan my ticket, this may make a beeping sound.”

“I will hear music. The dancers dance to the music. If it is too loud, I can put on my headphones or cover my ears.”

Learning experience

It’s all too common for some businesses and other organizations, when asked to accommodate audience members with disabilities, to respond with defensiveness and fear, wrongly imagining (without bothering to do the research) that treating people of differing abilities equally will somehow be too expensive or just too much of a hassle or an intrusion on their long-cultivated comfort zones. In fact, the law (including the three-decade-plus old Americans with Disabilities Act) and just plain human compassion and ingenuity afford lots of leeway in improving access, and most accommodations that can open doors to many, if not necessarily all potential patrons, often turn out to be much simpler and cheaper than close-minded decision makers fear.

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That’s been one of the lessons of OBT’s sensory friendly efforts so far. “It’s not that hard!” Rowe says. “In the scheme of things, it’s not very costly to take one show that’s already programmed and create a more relaxed atmosphere in the theater. Robin has done an unbelievable amount of work, but it’s not that hard in comparison to other work we’re trying.”

It also brings benefits to the company and its audience, not just in expanded audiences and, therefore, ticket sales, but also an organization’s goodwill and public image. And more. With the lights up on the audience, the performers can more easily see the people they’re entertaining. “It’s a valuable experience for the dancers to know they’re performing for such a diverse audience, and to also see and hear the reaction from the audience is so unique for them.“

Besides, bringing art to as many people as possible, rather than maintaining convenient but discriminatory traditions, is, after all, what arts organizations are supposed to be about.

The OBT dancers take the stage in Oregon Ballet Theatre's 2022 production of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker®." Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
The OBT dancers take the stage in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2022 production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

“Already the response we’re receiving is so heartwarming and so motivating,” Rowe says. The point of what we do is to create performances, to tell stories, to move people, to allow people a space where they can be curious and provoke thoughts they didn’t have. And to do this for as many people as possible. That’s part of our job description.”

Getting friendlier

Rowe regards this first sensory friendly performance as a way of testing the waters for variations in performance practice. OBT won’t know the results until after the show. Ulibarri describes this initial attempt as part of a “learning year” for expanded performance practice. “We need to get started somewhere, and gather as much information as we can.” 

Depending on how this season’s single show goes, expect more such shows in future. “We’re already in conversations about how we can increase the amount of sensory performances,” Rowe says. “We’re looking at programming and whether certain ballets lend themselves well to that sort of performance. I would predict we would increase the amount of sensory friendly Nutcrackers, and maybe others moving forward.” 

That might include darker productions than the candy sweet Nutcracker. “If it’s a different show, we’ll need to talk about how to illustrate any super intense dramatic moments” without overwhelming the audience, Ulibarri says. 

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Rowe also speculates that some sensory friendly components might find their way into regular OBT shows — providing fidget toys, for example, or a note on the website indicating that certain shows are a relaxed performance. She intends to keep looking for ways to make OBT shows more welcoming to a broader audience.

“In order for ballet to continue to be relevant and infused in people’s lives, we must open our arms and welcome a diverse audience into our theater,” Rowe declares. “This is one step in this direction.”

In a Nutshell, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s special sensory friendly one-hour Nutcracker performance, happens Tuesday, December 19 at 12:00 PM. Tickets and info here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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