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Ballet debuts first-ever sensory-friendly Nutcracker performance

<i>KPIX</i><br/>Collin Doran
Arif, Merieme
Collin Doran

By Betty Yu

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    SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Every December, the San Francisco Ballet puts on spectacular performances of the Nutcracker.

On Wednesday, the magic of the holiday classic will reach an even wider audience.

For the first time in its nearly 90-year history, the San Francisco Ballet will present a version of the Nutcracker that is inviting and welcoming to children and families with special needs.

20-year-old corps de ballet dancer Pemberley Ann Olson will perform the role of party parent in Act 1.

“For me, when I watched this exact production as a kid changed my childhood and it made me want to become a ballet dancer when I was younger,” Olson said.

Olson started training with the San Francisco Ballet at the age of 6. During a pre-pandemic sensory-friendly workshop, she was especially touched by a young girl, who wasn’t able to see the full show at the War Memorial Opera House.

“I just remember having this girl attached hip to hip with me the whole entire day,” she said. “This little girl that I was able to meet that one amazing day, she had that spark in her eyes and I could tell that she wanted to come watch us, not just in the studio doing a little small performance as a snowflake, but she wanted to see the entire show.”

The San Francisco Ballet and the Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area began collaborating on workshops and relaxed dress rehearsals curated for people with autism, other sensory sensitivities, or cognitive, physical and developmental disabilities since 2015.

On Wednesday, potentially startling moments during the full-length show will be removed or modified. For example, it will not feature an explosion from this canon during the battle scene.

The house lights will be kept on during the entire show.

Among the changes to the theater experience — guests will also be free to move, talk, or dance as they please throughout the show.

There will be designated movement areas, quiet spaces, kindness ambassadors, and even opportunities to meet the dancers.

“For me when I was watching, I connected with certain dances, and I told my parents I want to be like that person one day, or I want to dance like her or I want to dance like him,” Olson said. “I hope these kids are able to say those things and think that is such a cool job to have. I want to go and take a ballet class.”

The idea is for the show to be a relaxed, shush-free and shame-free environment.

“I’m getting calls from parents, from family members, from people who have come to the ballet for a long time, but never felt that they could bring their entire family,” SF Ballet associate director of education Jasmine Yep Huynh said. “It’s really a sense of joy during the holiday season, it’s thinking about how the arts can bring people together.”

Olson said she usually doesn’t know who is in the audience during her performances. On Wednesday, things will be a bit different.

“I’m going to be smiling extra hard, just for all those kids, just because I know they’re smiling, all the way over there in the back of the pews,” she said. “Definitely I think we’re all going to be smiling on stage tomorrow.”

The general public is also welcome to attend the showing.

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