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A ‘Nutcracker’ for Everyone

Milwaukee Ballet partners with Autism Speaks for a special performance

Dec. 6, 2016
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Photo Credit Nathaniel Davauer

Written towards the end of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s turbulent life, the music for the ballet The Nutcracker—originally a children’s fairytale by E.T.A. Hoffmann—had its first performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in December 1892. It has since become a perennial Christmas family favorite, performed around the world in many different guises, versions and configurations. Indeed, the charming story of young Clara being entranced by a toy nutcracker given to her by her godfather at a Christmas party that magically transforms into a handsome soldier is so well known that its retelling here is largely superfluous. This allows us to focus upon the specifics of Milwaukee Ballet’s upcoming production. 

Some things remain the same, but many things are new this time around. “This year’s Nutcracker will once again showcase … Tchaikovsky’s score played live by our Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and the same gorgeous sets and costumes,” Milwaukee Ballet’s Leslie Rivers explains. But, there are new things that even annual Nutcracker attendees will look forward to. “We have six new dancers in the company,” Rivers states, these being Jonathan Batista, Marie Collins, Randy Crespo, Alexander Negron, Lahna Vanderbush and Lizzie Tripp. “Michael Pink likes to give the dancers some artistic license to make the characters their own, so these dancers will bring a special energy and interpretation to their roles,” she says.

The newest (and most fascinating) element of this year’s production is a special performance aimed specifically at those who have been diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) or who have other sensitivity issues. “Ballet is language through movement, and it makes perfect sense for this art form to be adapted for the enjoyment of children and adults on the autism spectrum,” Artistic Director Michael Pink says, adding, “We want to ensure as many families as possible can make memories for their children seeing this performance.” 

In order to make this all work, Milwaukee Ballet has collaborated with Autism Speaks—the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization. Traditional stage productions can be somewhat unnerving to sensitive people—such as those with ASD—given the volume, bright lights and highly kinetic movement. But, as Autism Speaks’ Manager of Field Development Lauren Peter explains, “Events can be tailored to meet their needs by making small modifications, such as lowering sound levels and adjusting lighting. These simple accommodations go a long way toward providing an inclusive environment for everyone.”

The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, home to the Nutcracker’s play space, Uihlein Hall, is likewise on board with this initiative. Marcus Center CEO and President Paul Mathews has ensured that their box office, facilities and ushers will all be available and ready. “In collaboration with Milwaukee Ballet, we continue to explore new areas of community engagement at the Marcus Center,” Mathews states, “and this opportunity is a wonderful and worthy initiative for our support.” 

To this end, the special performance features volume-tempered recorded music, house lights that will remain on during the performance, a designated “Quiet Zone” where breaks can be taken, plush toys and other small tactile items available to children who need them and more. Hopefully, this sensory-friendly, inclusive show becomes part of Milwaukee Ballet’s Nutcracker tradition.

The Nutcracker will be performed at Uihlein Hall Dec. 10-27. The sensory-friendly performance takes place on Wednesday, Dec. 21. For tickets, call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org. For more information about Autism Speaks, visit autismspeaks.org.

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