Dance Matters: Dialing Down a Classic

PBT presents a Nutcracker geared to children with autism disorders.


“This is a performance where families can come as they are and be who they are,” says Alyssa Herzog Melby, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s education director, about the company’s first autism-friendly performance of The Nutcracker, which she championed. The troupe, directed by Terrence Orr, follows the lead of the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative, which facilitates performances of Broadway productions for sensory-sensitive audiences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorders affect 1 in 88 children nationally.


Christine Schwaner in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Nutcracker. Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT


Working with several local autism support organizations, PBT assembled a 10-member panel that scrutinized a DVD of the company’s The Nutcracker. Participants suggested removing the flares from Drosselmeyer’s magic tricks and reducing the volume of the recorded Tchaikovsky score for the ballet’s two-hour duration. Orr’s choreography remains unchanged, but lighting adjustments may be necessary.

PBT, which has worked closely with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust throughout the process, assembled a pictorial pre-visit guide as an introduction to the theatergoing experience, and will offer a real-time opportunity to explore the Benedum Center, where the ballet will be performed. Designated quiet and activity stations will be made available, along with more than 50 education and health care volunteers. Ushering staff, who were trained for an autism-friendly performance of Disney’s The Lion King, staged in September at the Benedum, are working the house. A clinical advisor prepared the troupe’s 29 artists for potential distractions during the December 27 matinee, which will be performed with dim house lighting.


Ensemble member Stephen Hadala, a veteran Drosselmeyer, is excited to reach an audience new to The Nutcracker.  “We, as an organization, can set the standard for ballet companies in other cities. This experience is something I will treasure forever.”

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