BWW Interviews: Houston Ballet Presents Adapted, Autism-Friendly MY FIRST BALLET: COPPELIA
MY FIRST BALLET: COPPÉLIA
For the first time at the Houston Ballet, children on the autism spectrum will be able to experience and enjoy a ballet in an environment crafted specifically for them. With a special performance of MY FIRST BALLET: COPPÉLIA, the Houston Ballet Academy makes its first foray into autism-friendly performances. To accommodate the children during this special performance, house lights will be kept on, audience members will be able to easily enter and exit the theater as needed, and sensory toys will be available.
The children will enjoy the story of Swanhilde and Franz in MY FIRST BALLET: COPPÉLIA. The lovey-dovey couple is content until Franz develops eyes for another girl in the village, the beautiful Coppélia. Eager to size-up her competition, Swanhilde spies on Coppélia only to discover that the new object of Franz's affection is a life-sized doll. Swanhilde devises a simple plan. To make Franz love her again, she will pretend to be the doll. The autism-friendly performance of this lovely fairytale is on Sunday, March 29.
The My First Ballet series "[is] a way of giving children and their families this very first introduction to our art form," said Houston Ballet's executive director James Nelson. And for parents of autistic children, like former Houston Ballet dancer Kim Stafford, autism-friendly performances make ballet accessible for children on the autism spectrum as well. "Our children enjoy these types of outings just as much as typical kids, but they have a harder time sitting still. They make vocalizations... so when they're excited, all they can do to express themselves is make loud noises. In a typical theatre performance, that's not going to be as welcome."
The goal of the adapted MY FIRST BALLET: COPPÉLIA is to welcome children on the autism spectrum and, through simple accommodations, make the ballet accessible. These accommodations are made to the setting, however, and not the performances. In our conversation, Nelson assures the dancers are aware of the unique audience and ready to perform. Additional resources for autistic children won't affect the quality of the production. "Our dancers are just great ambassadors to our community, and they're excited about having this opportunity. They're excited about meeting the kids after the performance." Additionally, Stafford will make use of her fourteen years as a Houston Ballet company member and meet with the COPPÉLIA performers to offer advice about what to expect. "I think that's a pivotal role to be able as a dancer to tell them," said Stafford.
As a plus, according to Stafford, everyone in the family will enjoy the ballet. "It's so nice because all the families and all the kids have the freedom to move around and make noise, but nothing about it is ever so disruptive that you can't enjoy [the ballet]." Stafford has two sons. One son is autistic while the other is not. Both attend adapted performances together. "For us as a family to be able to go and do something like that, all four of us together ... Those are the most wonderful memories that we can have."
It Takes a Village
This special performance required a meeting of like minds. For Stafford, the process began when she approached Nelson with a unique request. "I asked [James Nelson] if I could bring my son to a dress rehearsal of THE NUTCRACKER. I was unsure of how he would do in a real show. I wanted to test the waters bringing him to something more laid back that I could walk out of if it wasn't going well." As luck would have it, Nelson and the Houston Ballet were already working on a solution. "[James Nelson] had already been thinking about wanting to start some autism-friendly performances," said Stafford. "That was the first step for me." Bolstered by the Houston Ballet's interest in neurodiverse programming, Stafford became a more vocal advocate. "I was a champion of making it happen. I just kind of kept [Laughs] bugging everybody and having meetings. It was so important for me to make it happen. And I know it was very important for them too."
Luckily for the Houston Ballet, the jigsaw pieces for the puzzle of an accessible performance were sprinkled throughout Houston. "The Hobby Center [for the Performing Arts] had really taken the leadership on doing autism-friendly performances," said Nelson. "I think of THE LION KING and then [the RADIO CITY CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR STARRING] THE ROCKETTES." Then there is The Monarch School, which provides for Pre-K through 12th grade and even postgraduate education for students with neurological disorders. The Houston Ballet had inside women in the form of Stafford, whose son attends The Monarch School, and Houston Ballet Academy education and outreach associate Jennifer Sommers who is also a dance instructor at The Monarch School. These connections proved invaluable according to Nelson. "The folks at Monarch have been a great resource," said Nelson. "We've really relied on [their] expertise."
These collaborative efforts are wide-reaching. When asked whether or not he would like to expand adapted performances, Nelson responded, "I'd love to. We started with the Dance For Parkinson's program. We added the Adapted Dance for kids with Down syndrome... and now [we're] adding this performance for families with kids on the autism spectrum. I would like to see how we can build this program so that we are reaching different communities within Houston."
Community outreach is a continual pursuit for the Houston Ballet, but more than that, both Stafford and Nelson have a personal connection to adaptive programs and productions like MY FIRST BALLET: COPPÉLIA. "My father was diagnosed with Parkinson's [disease] shortly after we started this program. I'm not the only advocate for it, but it was something that was very important to me," said Nelson. And for Stafford, adapted performances allow a judgment-free trip to the ballet. "[If] he is standing up and flapping and twirling around, parents of children who are doing the exact same thing are sitting all around us. It's just so wonderful to not have to worry about what other people are thinking or about bothering anyone. We're all enjoying it in the same boat. [Laughs]"
On Sunday, March 29 at 11:30 a.m., Houston Ballet II will offer an autism friendly performance of COPPÉLIA as part of the My First Ballet series. Families can prepare ahead of time by reviewing www.houstonballet.org/Education-Outreach/Adaptive-My-First-Ballet-Performance/.
Tickets were extended to families of the Monarch School and those enrolled in Houston Ballet Academy's Adapted Dance program, but there are a limited number of tickets that are now available to the public. To find out more and to purchase tickets, please call Houston Ballet Box Office at 713.227.2787 and reference Butterfly. All tickets are $10. Performance is in the Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab at the Center for Dance in downtown Houston, 601 Preston St.
The performance will last approximately one hour and will feature the young students of Houston Ballet Academy.
The Monarch School and The Down Syndrome Society of Houston have made this autism-friendly performance of MY FIRST BALLET: COPPÉLIA a reality.
For more information about the Monarch School, please visit www.monarchschool.org/.
For more information about The Down Syndrome Association of Houston, please visit http://dsah.org/.
Visit http://www.houstonballet.org/Education-Outreach/Education-Outreach/ for more information about Houston Ballet's educational outreach.