Hip, hip hooray for the gentle ballet
Let us turn the page — for a moment, at least — from our recent focus and consider the coming holidays. After an epic election season, families now face the hopefully happier prospect of gathering together and giving thanks.
Recently, we’ve learned of a truly marvelous opportunity for hundreds of families often excluded from a holiday tradition most of us take for granted: A gentle production of Tchaikovsky’s timeless ballet, “The Nutcracker.” (Mark the calendar: Nov. 23, at the Macky Auditorium on the University of Colorado Campus in Boulder. Doors open at 1:15 p.m. for the 2 p.m. show. Tickets are $20.)
Working with advocates for children, teenagers and adults with autism and special needs, the Boulder Ballet and the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra are staging a pilot presentation of the famous ballet meant to be as welcoming as it is inspiring — and just plain fun. The “sensory friendly” performance offers families with special-needs members a chance to enjoy a version of the ballet tailored and held just for them.
“No shushing. No judging. And no apologizing,” as autism advocate Julie Marshall tells us.
House lights will be set at 35 percent throughout the production, and attendees will be free to experience the music, the dancing and the visuals as they choose. Need to clap with the music? Need to make noise? Need to spin or dance along? Need to just move around? No problem. Live it up! There’s even a chance after the show to meet dancers in costume who helped make the magic happen.
“When I am enjoying music so immensely, it often tends to stimulate me,” the production’s emcee, Benjamin Tarasewicz, 22, tells us. “It’s amazing how music changes people’s lives, including mine. If I’m having a bad day or something, listening to music just changes my mindset altogether and it feeds my soul.”
But often those with autism, like Tarasewicz, find themselves given the stink eye at concerts and other public gatherings. Families and their children are made to feel shame for outbursts of joy that depart from expected social norms. Mel Persion tells us she felt she had to give up trying to take her autistic daughter to concerts to avoid the humiliation.
No doubt, those are challenges for symphony orchestras, ballets and their fans. So we give thanks for Boulder’s musicians and dancers and the boards that worked to make this experiment a reality. They in turn point to the help from Imagine! Behavioral Health Services, Imagine! Daypring, BrainSong, Autism Society of Colorado and the Association for Community Living.
What a grand idea to find a way to create community for a community too often excluded. What a great gift that that community has the chance to experience talented performers together.
Boulder Ballet, Boulder Phil stage sensory-friendly ‘Nutcracker’
Audience members may sing, yell, talk, dance
When Sarah Marshall was an infant, Mozart calmed her. When she got upset in the car, Gregorian chants immediately soothed her. She found delight in BB King and the blues.
As she grew up, the Lafayette girl struggled with speaking. She couldn’t put two words together in a sentence. But she could sing the ABCs and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
“When she started missing her milestones, it became really clear that music was the key to her language skills,” says her mother, Julie Marshall.
Sarah was diagnosed with severe autism. But the Lafayette girl, today a 12-year-old middle-schooler, has always been musically gifted.
“There’s something about the rhythm of music that organizes her brain. It’s really profound,” says Marshall, who is a violinist herself.
The need to reach her daughter via music led Marshall to create BrainSong, an organization that connects professional musicians and concerts with children with special needs.
That led Marshall to reach out to the Boulder Ballet and Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra — and form a new partnership to bring the “Nutcracker” ballet to people with special needs.
For one afternoon, on Wednesday, Macky Auditorium, on the University of Colorado campus, will open its doors to people who might not be able to sit through or enjoy the traditional, classic show. Colorado’s first ever “sensory-friendly Gentle Nutcracker” with a full, live orchestra will still feature the full sets, costumes and the professional dancers.
Broomfield’s Colorado Conservatory of Dance also offers a sensory-friendly “Nutcracker,” going on three years now. This show is 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 16 at the Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 W. 84th Ave. in Denver.
The Colorado Conservatory production uses a recording of the music, which allows them to equalize the music so there are no unexpected peaks or crashes in the score that could alarm the audience.
The conservatory also offers a special dance program for children with special needs.
For the Boulder show, to accommodate people with sensory challenges, the house lights won’t go to full dark; they’ll stay at about 35 percent, to minimize the visual difference between the stage and the audience.
To shorten the length, the show will only feature the second act.
The auditorium is setting aside a special “quiet room,” open to anyone who needs some time away from the performance, at any time during the show.
And unlike a traditional theater performance, during this show, the audience is welcome to sing, yell, talk or dance along — whatever they need to do to enjoy the experience.
The auditorium is also only selling half of its tickets (600), to allow for plenty of space between seats, and people can choose their own seats or even move throughout the show, as needed.
To make the show accessible to different incomes, tickets are also discounted, subsidized by a BrainSong fundraising campaign, as well as donors.
Because space is limited, it is specifically geared toward people with special needs, such as autism, Down syndrome or even Alzheimer’s, and their families.
Malva Tarasewicz, of Boulder, and her son, Benjamin Tarasewicz, will be in attendance. Like with Sarah and many other people with autism, music has always been a bridge between Benjamin Tarasewicz and the people who love him.
When he was younger, she says she brought him to musical rehearsals and tried community concerts, but they had to sit close to the exit, just in case.
“I was always really stressed out at these things, not enjoying it,” Tarasewicz says. “It was always scary and felt really risky.”
She never knew when he might have an outburst or breakdown, or when uneducated community members might give a dirty look or even tell them to leave — not realizing how crucial exposure to music was for him.
“Even if everything else in the day was crummy, the music part was when he’d get more centered, this thinking would become more organized — of your therapeutic goals started to come together,” Tarasewicz says.
Even the most severe Alzheimers’ patients who cannot recognize their own reflection in a mirror can recognize a familiar song, research by neurologist Oliver Sacks has shown.
“Music does something for us. It transcends language,” Tarasewicz says. “It’s one of the most primitive things. Everyone can make a beat, and that builds community.”
Today, Benjamin Tarasewicz, now age 22, has developed his speaking skills, as well as his musical and storytelling ones. (He also enjoys telling jokes on stage.) He will be emceeing the “Nutcracker,” explaining what happened in the first act and also sharing his story with others as a role model.
He is a singer in a Boulder community choir, he plays the violin and is teaching himself how to play the ukulele, was a TedX speaker and is involved with other theatrical endeavors, such as a sensory-friendly chamber musical performance of “Peter and the Wolf” at the Boulder Public Library 2 and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. Both shows are free and open to the public.
He has seen the “Nutcracker” before, and he says he’s excited to share it with other kids like him.
“The costumes look so nice and vivid and colorful and so does the stage set. You just feel like you’re in a different time and place altogether, especially with the greatness of Macky Auditorium,” he says. “I’m just so excited to see other kids with autism like me having a blast and enjoying the show with no restrictions or shushing and the like.”
Event organizers have done months of research on how to make this work — because the idea is relatively new. Many big-scale production companies in other states have offered sensory-friendly shows before, but the Boulder Ballet, in partnership with the Boulder Phil, is the first professional company in Colorado to try it, says Kate Adams, the project manager of the “Gentle Nutcracker.”
They did offer a smaller sensory-friendly show at a rec center this summer, for maybe 50 viewers. But this is the first attempt at something of this magnitude.
To help prepare for the experience, Adams helped put together a “social narrative” that caregivers can read to people with special needs, to help them know what to expect. The checklist-style document will walk people through everything they will see and do, so there won’t be any surprises. (For example, “We will drive to Macky Auditorium with my family, and then walk from the parking lot into the auditorium and through the lobby and into the gallery. In the gallery, I will see a boutique, and there will be little trinkets I can look at and buy.”)
The “Gentle Nutcracker” website (boulderballet.org/the-gentle-nutcracker) also has photos of the show and videos of the trek from the parking lot into the auditorium, as well as a video of the auditorium.
Professional volunteers and occupational therapists also will be stationed throughout the theater to help. An EMT will be there to help with transfers. Volunteers are stationed at possible danger points, as well, such as in front of the orchestra pit and at the top of stairs outside of the bathroom.
Adams has also helped prepare the performers. (She is one of the dancers, too.) It’s different dancing with house lights on, she says.
“We will be able to see the audience and see them moving. That can’t be a surprise to us. Many will be talking and will have involuntary noises they’ll make,” she says.
Down in the pit, the orchestra won’t have to make as many adjustments. For this show, the music has no plans to be played quieter or adjusted, says conductor Michael Butterman. Although he says the orchestra will play some examples of their music before the show starts, to get the crowd used to it.
He says it was important to the musicians and the dancers to preserve the live music, rather than a recording. First, he says you can hear a substantial difference. But it also contributes to a deeper, more immersive experience, he says.
“The colors are more vibrant. They come alive better,” he says. “There’s a give and take in the performance. We watch and respond in very subtle but important ways, slightly adjusting tempos, waiting, all these little issues that are mostly invisible, but do make a difference to the performers and the way it comes across.”
Ultimately, Butterman says, he believes music and the arts are a basic human right.
“If we had gone along with the ‘Nutcracker’ with recorded music, it would have been much cheaper, but I think it would also have been sending a tacit message that we’re going to do this, but not give you everything we could,” he says. “That’s not the message I believe in. It’s taking time and resources, but it’s an investment that’s a worthy one.”
Ana Claire, artistic director of the Boulder Ballet, says the opportunity to offer a sensory-friendly “Nutcracker” is the culmination of two of her lifelong passions. When she was younger, she says she either wanted to go into ballet or work with children with autism.
She says the dancers will gain as much from the experience as the audience.
“It’s just wonderful how humans with different abilities and psyches can relate. I think it opens everybody’s minds, because there are no words that can get in the way,” Claire says. “Everybody has rhythm. Your heart is rhythm.”
She says she hopes to offer ballet classes for people with special needs soon.
“I’m just hoping to bring dance to more and more people,” she says.
Tips for caregivers
If you’re attending the “Gentle Nutcracker” with a person with special needs, here are some tips that may help:
Practice at home. Tell your child what’s going to happen. Listen to the music at home. Provide concrete references about the experience, instead of it being an abstract concept. Maybe even set up a row of chairs at home and model what the show will feel like, says Malva Tarasewicz. “Practice if you start to feel like you can’t handle it, instead of screaming, give my hand a tap and we will leave so you can rest,” she says.
Try again and again. “You can do the repeats a bunch of times, even in the same performance,” Tarasewicz says. Repeated exposure often helps.
Bring “fidget toys.” Adams encourages caregivers to pack toys that the child may enjoy or even need to calm down.
Choose your seat wisely, but don’t be afraid to move. Sit toward the back if your child tends to get overwhelmed quickly. Sit by an aisle if your child needs to move around.