As New York City Ballet’s Education Department is known to say, “Ballet is for everyone.” To that end, the Company works diligently to offer opportunities for movers of all ages and abilities to take part in the artform beloved by the performers, creators, and audiences who pass through the theater every day. From in-school programs to tours of the David H. Koch Theater and interactive workshops in the same studios used by the dancers to rehearse, NYCB has been able to extend its engagement with audience members beyond traditional performances. Just under ten years ago, the Education Department further expanded these connections through the addition of Access programming, intended for dance enthusiasts with physical disabilities, movement disorders, and autism and other stimulus-related needs. This year, the Company will be presenting its first repertory season, sensory-friendly performance, connecting the more intimate educational experience of the Access Workshops to the large-scale experience of an onstage program.
“We meet the needs of a wide variety of people in our Access Workshops; however, we’re only able to serve a limited number of individuals,” explains Associate Director of Education Meghan Gentile. That’s essential to the nature of the programs and the needs of the participants. “For our Autism-Friendly Workshops, we like to keep it small—usually about 15 kids in each workshop. We think that's a nice, comfortable setting for everybody. With this opportunity to get everyone in to see the performance, we can serve so many more families. That's always the goal with our work—making that connection between having a movement experience, and then seeing it translated when they watch our dancers perform onstage.”
That aim also inspired the decision to call the May 19 performance “sensory-friendly.” “We think that encapsulates a lot of different needs, to keep the door open to as many people as possible,” Gentile explains. “We’re outlining the adjustments on our website and in communications to help audience members know what to look forward to and decide whether it’s a good fit.” These accommodations include a relaxed entry and exit policy, both at the beginning of and throughout the performance; lighting will remain at around 30%, rather than the traditional full darkness of the house; there will be staffed “chill out” spaces throughout the theater, with comfort items—beanbags, sensory fidgets, weighted blankets—available for any audience member who’s in need of a break, and who can return to enjoying the performance if they feel ready to do so; a visual schedule shared ahead of the day; and increased staffing.
“Our ushers are amazing and they do such a good job meeting all our audience members’ needs. But with this audience, there are additional needs, so we’ll have additional hands on deck,” Gentile explains. “Our colleagues at Lincoln Center Accessibility are helping us bring in specialists who are professionally trained and have tools and resources to work with this population in particular. Lincoln Center Accessibility will also be leading a briefing with our front of house team and our artists—dancers and orchestra members—to go over what they can expect at this performance.”
While many of the adjustments for the sensory-friendly performance are in keeping with best practices already in place with the Company’s Access Workshops, these preparations are also informed by the autism-friendly performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® presented by the Theater Development Fund (TDF) in 2022. “I performed in the TDF autism-friendly Nutcracker,” recalls Corps de Ballet Member Alec Knight, who has been leading Access Workshops and working with the Company’s Education Department for a few years. “It was much more interactive: The lighting was a bit brighter than it normally is for shows, and there were more verbal things from the audience that we could hear. But I didn't find it distracting; if anything, I found it more facilitative of an intimate experience. That is very new for us, to be able to feel and hear the audience in that way. It's a different way of connecting through performance. It was such a win for the Company and for the families that were able to attend.
“As a dancer, being able to experience what we do every day is something that's so easy to take for granted,” Knight continues. “Getting to deconstruct that, and hone in on specific things that help other people experience what we experience every day, and tailoring it to them so that they feel, in their own way, what we feel every day—that’s what is so incredible about the Access Workshops. It's a continued process of connection and exploring dialogue through dance. And it helped me better understand myself, in that regard.”
Access Workshops often involve current NYCB dancers, who report, as Knight describes above, feeling that they get as much out of participating as they give. For the families that take part in Access programming, many year after year, moving from the children’s workshops to those for teenagers and adults, the benefits are immeasurable. “My daughter is Dahlia (pictured). She's four years old, and she has Sotos syndrome and trisomy 14 mosaicism; these cause various disabilities, and a lot of them are aligned with those of ASD [autism spectrum disorder],” shares Loryn Brantz. “These workshops have been great for Dahlia. She loves ballet—it’s her favorite thing in the world since she was really, really little. We're just obsessed with the Access Programs, and we sign up for everything.” Parents, siblings, and caregivers are able to watch throughout the workshops, and share in the experience of the artform. “I grew up dancing. I’m a big fan of the Ballet,” Loryn adds.
Loryn and Dahlia have tickets for the upcoming performance and are looking forward to this new opportunity to take part in the New York City Ballet community. “We love anything that's labeled sensory-friendly and inclusive, because I know if she's struggling or having trouble staying in her seat, none of the other parents are going to judge us, none of the people working there are going to be fazed by it. It’s a much more comfortable environment to bring her to—a safe space to enjoy the art.”
“I love ballet, and I want my children to be part of things that I love,” says Cornelia Peckman, whose 27-year-old son Julian has taken part in Access Workshops and is also looking forward to the sensory-friendly performance. “I want my son to be able to experience ballet, and I'm trying to be respectful. I could buy a regular ticket to go to a ballet and take him, but he can be squirrelly. So it's not considerate, even though I would love to. This gives me an opportunity to bring something to my son that I adore.” Julian reported that the Access Workshops are fun, because he gets to “move to music,” and the classes are taught by “real dancers.” His only complaint? “The class should be every week so I could learn more.”
“I cannot say enough good things about the classes,” Cornelia agrees. “It’s exciting to the children that you have a pianist there. Every single one of the teachers has brought an incredibly positive experience to the young people who show up. Julian is expressing himself through movement—these programs give him the opportunity to create. Isn't that what art’s all about?”
Access Workshops rely on live pianists and the dancers’ usual rehearsal studios in order to share in the fullest experience of their day-to-day work with the families that take part. In the same way, the sensory-friendly performance will be as similar to any other NYCB performance as possible, beyond the accommodations mentioned above. “From an artistic standpoint, nothing's changing. The performance is exactly the same as it always is,” explains Gentile. Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford and Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan have been part of the planning process, including deciding which program would be an appropriate fit for this first non-Nutcracker presentation. “Audiences should be able to see everything in our repertory,” says Gentile. “For our first in-house program of this kind, Jon, Wendy, [Senior Director of Education & Public Programs] Laura Johnson, and I sat down together and considered the programs scheduled for this season. I’m really excited that we can share Glass Pieces and Scènes de Ballet with this audience.
“This coming fall is the 10th anniversary of our Access Programs,” Gentile continues. “Our artistic and administrative leadership teams are really looking to keep this a part of our programming going forward. We want to provide this for everyone.”
Performance photo © Erin Baiano. Workshop photos © Rosalie O'Connor.