Best Practices

A Nutcracker with Extra Heart

When companies welcome disabled children into their holiday productions

The Joffrey Ballet created a special ongoing "Nutcracker" role for a wheelchair-bound boy.

In 1992, when the Joffrey held open auditions for children to be in its Nutcracker, a little boy named Leonard showed up in his wheelchair and asked if he could be in the show. “They made a role for him,” says Wheater. “They changed the story and integrated the boy into the entire party scene.” The role has remained in the annual show.

There are similar stories from around the country about companies and schools who have adapted their Nutcrackers to include children with disabilities. Others have created new holiday productions to better highlight the talents of these young dancers. DT talked with several organizations that lift spirits and reap rewards by opening their stages, and their hearts, to these children.

Making the Children Welcome

It’s no wonder that some companies choose The Nutcracker production to give physically and mentally challenged children a chance to perform onstage. It’s the first ballet that most children see and dream of dancing. Whether it’s one role in the party scene, a new corps of flowers or a change in the storyline to add new characters, open-minded company directors are finding unique ways to make it work.

When Minnesota Ballet created a new Nutcracker in 2009, artistic director Robert Gardner made sure there were roles for children attending academy classes who have physical and developmental challenges. Though the roles were assigned by invitation, he encouraged the children to wear a number and audition like everyone else. Then they were sent letters saying they got the part. “We don’t want them to feel they’re getting special treatment,” he says.

Gardner has such affection for these students that he dances the role of the Chestnut Vendor himself and guides the lowest-functioning children around the stage. Last year, some progressed to roles that require skipping and more complicated pattern work. “They don’t stick out,” he says. “They’re part of the action. Some of our audience members don’t even realize that these children have disabilities.”

At Dance Innovations in New Jersey, artistic director Susan McCutcheon Coutts welcomes 75 of these children into the regular schedule throughout the year. All classes in her curriculum are open to students with special needs. If some of the children express interest in performing, she then incorporates them into herNutcracker party scene. “It’s important to give these kids the same opportunity that other kids get,” she says. “Their learning curve might be a little different, but they’re kids and deserve the same as the others. The dance might not be perfect, but that’s okay.”

Coutts’ Nutcracker is nontraditional: There’s everything from classical ballet to hip hop to Irish step dancing. The company’s photographer, a physically handicapped woman who uses a double crutch, sings in the production, as well. Proceeds from the show fund scholarships in the arts for children with special needs.

Collaborative Efforts

The Rockbridge Ballet in Lexington, Virginia, collaborates with the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind to present Signs of the Season. The show is a mix of ballet, familiar holiday music and American Sign Language. Two people per song provide ASL accompaniment for songs with lyrics, while the company dancers and children sign as part of the dance. Last year, 10 children from the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind participated in the production.

“None of this would have been possible without my faculty member Bailey Vincent Clark, who is deaf,” says Jessica Pyatt Martin of Rockbridge Ballet. “She is fluent in sign and was able to bridge the gap, helping to get the interpreters and have it all scheduled.” Clark went to the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind once a week for three months, giving a dance class and teaching basic choreography. When rehearsals for Signs of the Season with Rockbridge Ballet started at the theater, the Virginia School sent certified assistants to be with the children at all times. The project was considered an official school field trip so that the young dancers could get on a bus and leave the facility.

There were two shows, a matinee and an evening, with lunch between at a local pizza parlor for the company, children and their families. “We had some parent volunteers to help them do their hair and makeup so they could really feel special and have that whole experience,” says Martin. “My dancers also learned basic ASL so they could learn to say ‘Glad you’re here,’ ‘Good job,’ or ‘There’s the bathroom,’ and they were able to communicate.”

New England Ballet Company in Connecticut does a Nutcracker suite involving children from a local after-school program. While many of the children are autistic, “Waltz of the Flowers” is a dance for those in wheelchairs, and the prince is usually a boy with Down syndrome. Several company dancers mentor these children year-round, and because they have developed trusting friendships, they are able to guide the children through rehearsals and performances. “The children get completely integrated with our own dancers,” says co-artistic director Kenneth Hopkins. “They’re all different levels. There was a boy who couldn’t do anything but run on the stage and run off, so we created a cowboy part for him in the battle scene. With a leader, he galloped across the stage, whooping and hollering. That was all the movement he could learn, but we made it work right into the story.”

Positive Impact

Working with these children is rewarding for everyone involved, from directors to company dancers to the children themselves. The experience teaches compassion, respect and that all people are capable of dancing. And there’s a business payoff as well: Most companies see a boom in ticket sales. “The show brought people who had never been to our shows before,” says Martin. “Since then, they continue to come. It was a financial investment that paid off and helped us grow our audience.”

But nothing compares to the joy that these children show onstage. Three-year-old Makynna, a deaf and blind girl from the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind who is usually uncomfortable in the arms of anyone unfamiliar, giggled and laughed as she was twirled around onstage by her company-level dance partner. Another young lady with very low-functioning, nonverbal autism never really laughed until she started dancing. “She doesn’t get the chance to do a lot of things in the community,” says New England Ballet Company’s Hopkins. “We put her front and center onstage and choreographed to what she could do. Her parents were beaming in the audience.” DT

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet and frequently writes for Dance Teacher, as well as Dance MagazinePointe and Dance Spirit.

Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy of Joffrey Ballet

The Museum Workout. Photo by Paula Lobo, courtesy of the Met

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