Sensory-Friendly Production of The Nutcracker Is Accessible for All – Westword


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The Colorado Conservatory of Dance's sensory-friendly production of The Nutcracker has been a hit since 2014, when it was first presented in an effort to make the holiday classic more accessible for those with sensory, social and learning disabilities.

"I've been doing the sensory-friendly performance since the first year we did it, and it's pretty much the best show of the year," says ensemble performer Sophie Trojanowski.

The performance undergoes several adjustments to make it sensory-friendly. None of the cast wore the famous mouse headpieces for the first iteration, but CCD CEO and artistic director Julia Wilkinson Manley thought that was cheating the audience out of a crucial part of the story. Manley has since found a way to introduce the headpieces and make the audience feel safe: Before the curtain rises, she's joined on stage with a performer in a mouse costume, excluding the headpiece. With a slow display of the performer donning the mouse head, Manley aims to normalize the costume and make it less frightening for the audience. She also talks to the audience before the performance about the CCD, the Nutcracker storyline and what the sensory-friendly performance will entail.

Other changes to the original production include lowering the overall music volume and removing unexpected loud noises. The audience is limited to half-capacity, with 300 seats instead of 600, and those present are permitted to move about the venue and use any personal devices to assist their processing of the show. Flash photography and any other bright lights are banned, and the overhead lights remain on for the entire performance.

Members of the cast say that leaving the lights on has had a positive impact on both the performers and the audience. Being able to see the audience allows for "exchanging smiles while you're dancing," says Simon Nguyen, who plays the titular role this season. "It's like they're urging you to go harder."

Bridget Church, who plays four ensemble roles, agrees. "It's very rewarding, because you can see these kids and families who haven't had the opportunity to go to a show before," she says.

After the sensory-friendly performance, the audience is invited to a cast meet-and-greet in the lobby, which includes a costume "petting zoo" that lets the guests to see and feel the garments.

Manley recounts how a few years ago, a sensory-friendly audience member was fascinated with a dancer's pointe shoes, and spent a lot of time examining them on the performer's feet. She says she's seen that same person return several years since.

"A lot of [the audience] tend to talk for a really long time, and that's really fun because you get to know who they are and learn about their experience at the show," says Trojanowski. "A lot of the time, it's a first time, or not very common for them to experience. The joy and excitement they're experiencing is truly unique."

The pandemic forced the CCD to shelve its live performance of The Nutcracker in 2020; instead, the organization released a video of the ballet with a pared-down cast that was available for streaming. This year, the annual performance returns with a full show on weekends from Friday, December 10, through Sunday, December 19. The sensory-friendly performance will take place on Friday, December 17.

"Being able to perform in person is breaking that barrier between the audience and performers, to be able to have a closer connection," notes Amelia Scott, an ensemble performer.

"It's fun to go into a theater, have a bunch of rehearsals, stay up until ten o'clock with your friends," says Nguyen. "You really get to connect with your peers and friends and get to know them throughout the show and season."

Trojanowski knows this year will be different, better: "The energy, which was really missed last year, is pure excitement and high energy before you go on stage or before opening night, because everyone is here, everyone is thrilled to see it."

The Colorado Conservatory of Dance is planning more sensory-friendly performances of its productions. The next scheduled performance is Cinderella and the Evil Stepmother on Friday, May 13. Attendees with alternative needs (the "guest of honor") is admitted free, while tickets are discounted for family members.

For families looking for more holiday and sensory-friendly activities, grabbing a photo with Santa Claus is also now more accessible. Southlands Shopping Center in Aurora, in partnership with the Autism Society of Colorado, is offering a reduced-noise opportunity to meet Santa on Saturday, December 11, from 8 to 10: 30 a.m.; the reservation-only event will have time slots every five minutes. Attendees will be able to meet Father Christmas himself and have a professional photo taken in a safe space. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased on the shopping center's website.

The Nutcracker, weekends from Friday, December 10, through Sunday, December 19; showtimes vary, and tickets start at $30. A sensory-friendly performance takes place at 6: 30 p.m. Friday, December 17, at the Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 West 84th Avenue in Federal Heights; tickets are $10.

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