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

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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