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Turn Up The Lights, Turn Down The Music For Sensory-Sensitive Ballet In Colorado

Stacy Nick
Colorado Conservatory of Dance dancer Sarah Zhang dances the role of the Snow Queen.

Julia Wilkinson Manley has a long history with "The Nutcracker Suite." She saw her first performance at the age of two.

As the artistic director with the Colorado Conservatory of Dance, the annual tradition can be exhausting. But while by January she's all "Nutcrackered" out, Manley said she never gets tired of introducing the ballet to new audiences.

"Reaching our community has been important to this organization since we were founded in 1992," she said.

Growing the community means finding new ways to serve a diverse audience.

Five years ago, Manley heard about a program by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. They were producing "sensory-friendly" shows specifically for special-needs audiences.

In these productions, the house lights stay up throughout the show and extremely loud or sudden sounds are minimized or eliminated. But it's more about what's happening in the audience that sets the shows apart.

"This environment allows for those families to have a family holiday experience where they all get to be together and they get to be who they are as they're enjoying the ballet," Manley said. "It's the opposite of how my mother taught me to act in a theater — to not talk, to clap (only) when it's appropriate, to only make sounds when it's appropriate."

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Colorado Conservatory of Dance's sensory-friendly production of "The Nutcracker" will feature modified sound and lights.

Here, vocalizing is fine. So is using a tablet or electronic device and getting up out of your seat and walking around. That's why even though the theater seats 600 people, for CCD's sensory-friendly performances only half the tickets will be sold so that audience members can move about safely.

On the stage, the show is pretty much the same, said dancer Caroline Cappelletti. But for the performers, the quieter music means having to listen harder for sound cues, Cappelletti said. And with the lights on, the audience is clearly visible — sometimes front and center.

"A lot of our guests come up to the stage and hang on the edge and wave, which is distracting but it's also really, really fun," she said. "These are some of our most exciting performances because we actually do get to see our audience and see their reactions."

Dancer Sarah Zhang said she was admittedly a little nervous about the shows, at first. She was only 13 when the company began doing them and she hadn't had much interaction with those with special needs.

"But then I saw this little girl at the front and she was hanging onto the stage and she was so invested, so into our movement," Zhang said. "And she, herself, was dancing and that was so special to see the impact that we made on her."

While she realizes that being in a theater may be a new experience for some, Zhang said she hopes those with special needs and their families know they are welcome here.

"It's really special to us as well," she said. "It does impact our lives, as well. Sometimes after the show we have interactions with the guests and that's really special."

Credit Amanda Tipton / Courtesy of Colorado Conservatory of Dance
Courtesy of Colorado Conservatory of Dance
The sensory-friendly shows require the dancers to adjust to seeing and hearing audience members during the show.

That's important for families who want to try new things they might not normally feel comfortable with. Natalia Mendiola is a community programs manager at the Autism Society of Boulder County. She's also the parent of a 12-year-old with autism spectrum disorder.

This is the fifth year they're going to CCD's sensory-friendly show. The events are what Mendiola calls a "bridging" activity that provide families with a way to try things they might not normally feel comfortable doing.

"Last year as I sat next to (my son), I looked at him and he sat quietly and smiling and was doing all the appropriate things that you would expect of a participant at a Nutcracker event," Mendiola said. "So I feel like now I know that I can take my son to any performance of 'The Nutcracker.'"

Credit Amanda Tipton / Courtesy of Colorado Conservatory of Dance
Courtesy of Colorado Conservatory of Dance
This is the fifth year that the Colorado Conservatory of Dance has presented a sensory-friendly production of "The Nutcracker."

And more arts companies are adding these types of shows to their schedules. The Pittsburgh ballet has even created an online training program so dance programs can model them.

Mendiola said offerings like this also are a great bridge for organizations to create more inclusive programming.

"It's amazing and heartwarming when you encounter people in the community who will stand up and advocate for including everybody, because that's our long-term goal," Mendiola said. "To have an experience where everybody in our community is included and welcomed, versus constantly just having very exclusive, small performances or opportunities for certain members of our community. That works right now for many families, but I don't know if that's the way we want to live our lives, necessarily. It would be nice to be able to just buy tickets to a performance and feel like (my son) might vocalize a little bit, but he's going to be welcome and accepted there. That, to me, would be the ultimate goal."

Colorado Conservatory of Dance will perform its sensory-friendly production of "The Nutcracker" on Dec. 14, 2018 at the Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School in Denver.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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