The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has created a much-loved holiday tradition with its multi-million dollar production of The Nutcracker. But sometimes there can be just as much satisfaction to be found in the studio., not necessarily with the professionals, but students.
I was invited to watch such a class with seven very special beginners. There were no overhead lights, just the natural kind, giving the studio a warm, comforting feeling.
The students were reviewing the five ballet positions from their instructors, Kaila Lewis and Jamie Murphy. Also on hand for support was Alyssa Herzog Melby, education and community engagement director at PBT, who was integral in opening up the normally aristocratic world of ballet to those with autism.
It all started with special performances at the Benedum Center using low light and subdued special effects.
Now, with the assistance from the ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA, PBT has initiated a series of four classes for high school students.
“We push for inclusion at the elementary level,” says outreach and eduction director Lu Randall. “But high school can be more difficult — it’s more competitive.”
There was autism training for the entire ballet school staff and the Nutcracker cast, enhanced by a high interest among PBT board members.
But the class concept may be a whole new thing in the ballet world. Ms. Fulton doesn’t know of a similar program anywhere else.
With this class in place, ballet could eventually become a lifelong movement activity for these students — a real plus.
The students learned warm-up exercises, along with relaxation techniques to help with stress management. There was a brief barre, beginning with plies, tendus and “the hard one,” piques. They jumped. They began to move across the floor.
Then came the fun stuff. The students actually learned slightly simplified, but real dances from the Nutcracker. First, the mice from the Transformation Scene, where they got to sneak around. Then everyone’s favorite, where they became the Pirate, swashbuckles and all.
It was obvious that everyone is enjoying themselves, from the family members sitting along the back wall and applauding enthusiastically to the dancers, whose smiles seem to grow during the class.
One young man even made his parents buy him a pair of ballet slippers. And they were all talking about what they would wear for their informal performance at the end of the sessions.
Cue the lights.