Courtesy of Roxey Ballet

This weekend, Roxey Ballet presented a sensory-friendly production of Cinderella at the Kendell Main Stage Theater in Ewing, New Jersey, with sound adjustments, a relaxed house environment and volunteers present to assist audience members with special needs. The production came on the heels of three educational residencies held at New Jersey–based elementary schools in honor of Autism Awareness Month in April.

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The Rhythm Works curriculum helps students improve communication and motor development. Photo courtesy of Rhythm Works Integrative Dance

Terms like "proprioceptive" and "vestibular input" don't often come up in the dance studio. But for Rhythm Works Integrative Dance (RWID) founder Tricia Gomez, they were the "magic words" that convinced a reluctant school principal to give dance a try.

Gomez's hip hop–based curriculum fuses rhythm and dance for students with learning differences. Launch Preschool in Torrance, California, serves children or adults who have autism or other disabilities. Their partnership is one of many that Gomez has built since the program's implementation in 2015. In some cases RWID is delivered in schools that cater to disabled students, such as Launch, but in others, it's used in programs where these students are mainstreamed.

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Christine Schwaner and Nurlan Abougaliev in PBT’s 2012 Nutcracker

For many, The Nutcracker is a hallmark of the holidays. This season Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will help more families in Western Pennsylvania take part in the tradition with an autism-friendly adaptation.

Among the first of its kind in the country by a professional ballet company, the performance will create a safe haven for families of autistic children by providing quiet areas and activity stations in the lobby, as well as reducing loud sounds and special effects.

“It’s not going to look much different onstage than what you would normally see,” says Alyssa Herzog Melby, the company’s director of education and community engagement. A few of the adjustments will include turning off rodents’ glowing eyes in the first act Rat King battle scene and eliminating flashes from the magic tricks Drosselmeyer performs. “They can be really intense and scary if you’re not prepared for them,” she adds. “And Tchaikovsky really loves to end his pieces with a big drum beat or boom, so we’re also going to make sure we lower that.”

After attending conferences and doing the research, Melby pitched the idea of an autism-friendly production to artistic director Terrence S. Orr as part of PBT’s Accessibility Initiative. The company consulted with a focus group of representatives from Autism Speaks of Greater Pennsylvania and The Advisory Board on Autism and Related Disorders’ Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, made up of parents, which presented recommenda- tions. PBT also looked at the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative and its 2011 autism-friendly Broadway performance of The Lion King as a blueprint.

Before the matinee, ticketholders received a guide to familiarize themselves with the ballet and venue. They were also invited to visit the theater beforehand during a “Meet Your Seat” event.

In the audience, lights will be kept at 25 percent to accommodate the relaxed atmosphere. People will be free to move around, and specialists will be on hand to cater to those in need. Volunteers positioned throughout the crowd will hold up glow sticks to alert people that a potentially startling sound or light change is coming.

In the lobby, coloring books, stuffed animals and other hands-on activities will be available, with quiet places families can retreat to. “The goal is that they return to the theater to finish watching the performance,” Melby says.

There won’t be many changes for dancers, says Orr, although being able to see the audience could require some adapting.

The Nutcracker takes place December 27 at 2:00 at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh.

For more: pbt.org

Sara Bauknecht writes dance, fashion and other arts and lifestyle features for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Photo by Rich Sofranko, courtesy of PBT

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