On February 18, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will use the magic of pixie dust (and splendid dancing) to entertain those who otherwise might not know the joy of attending live ballets. PBT’s sensory-friendly Peter Pan, a one-night event during the show’s two-week long run, will have supportive accommodations for children and adults with autism and other special needs. Jorden Morris’ choreography remains the same during the show, but potentially startling stage effects will be eliminated. The event will also have relaxed house rules so that viewers can move around or come and go as needed, break areas in the lobby and other adaptations.
In 2013, PBT was the first company in the country to provide a sensory-friendly adaptation of The Nutcracker, and it continued the tradition with the holiday favorite in 2014 and Beauty and the Beast in 2015. This year’s special performance coincides with PBT’s Peter Pan-themed spring adaptive dance classes.
PBT soloist Gabrielle Thurlow (a 2014 Pointe standout performer) will be performing as both Wendy and Tinkerbell during Peter Pan’s run, and she has danced in past PBT sensory-friendly performances. “As a dancer,” she says, “the show is very fulfilling. You can tell through the audience’s response and feedback that they greatly appreciate such a unique opportunity. It's a truly wonderful feeling to be able to provide a performance experience that might not ordinarily exist.”
What a great way to spread the love of dance this month!
Not every male dancer gets to take on roles like Swan Lake’s Odette, and Giannina in a restaging of Jules Perrot’s The Naïad and the Fisherman. But Philip Martin-Nielson isn’t your typical performer.
Martin-Nielson is a leading dancer with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male troupe famous for its parodies of traditional ballets. Quite an accomplishment for someone who was once told he would never be capable of taking care of himself or living on his own.
Although you’d never know it by talking to him or watching him dance, Martin-Nielson has one of the most severe forms of autism. Diagnosed at age 3, he was unable to maintain eye contact or communicate and couldn’t bear to be touched.
But as he memorized and performed the dances he saw on “Barney and Friends,” he discovered that he could express himself through dance. After years of him begging, his mother signed him up for his first ballet class at age 6.
His focus and attention during classes were qualities his mother had never seen before. She knew this was something he had to keep doing. With the help of his teachers, Martin-Nielson learned to carry the discipline he had acquired from ballet over into his academics and day-to-day life. His speech, reading and social skills improved dramatically, and he learned various social cues through movement and observing others in the studio.
“I was always teased and bullied for being different,” Martin-Nielson says. “But, when I was in a ballet class, the bullying, the teasing, the hurt feelings, none of that mattered.”
Teachers at his hometown dance studio in Cornwall, New York, thought his slight build, expressive presence and comedic flair were a perfect fit for the Trocks, so they introduced him to pointe at age 12.
It was Halloween, Martin-Nielson recalls. Armed with a pair of pointe shoes and a tutu, he walked into his first pointe class. “If you fall, you’re taking the shoes off,” his teacher warned.
But Martin-Nielson didn’t fall. Rather, he took to pointework right away. Years later, when he transferred to the School of American Ballet (where pointe is not offered for men), he would practice in his dorm room.
When he was 17, he auditioned for Trockadero. “I wanted to hire him immediately,” says Paul Ghiselin, the troupe’s ballet master. “He just has this natural ability and talent. He really pushes the vocabulary of ballet to its ultimate.”
The Trocks don’t hire dancers who haven’t finished high school, but they encouraged Martin-Nielson to come back once he graduated. He did, and officially signed on with them in September 2012. Now 21, he’s the youngest member of the company.
“The Trocks have given me some wonderful opportunities I never thought I would be able to experience,” Martin-Nielson says. Besides the chance to dance classical roles, he’s had the opportunity to travel, since the company performs all over the world.
Martin-Nielson hopes sharing his story will promote awareness of dance as a therapy for autism, so others like him can achieve their goals and realize their dreams. “If you have a passion, keep going for it and keep doing it to the best of your ability,” he says. “No matter how many times somebody tries to shut you down.”
Pre-performance ritual: “Making sure my pointe shoes are clean and nice, and putting Band-Aids around the ribbons so they don’t come undone.”
Hidden talent: “I’m a costume designer. I can make anything out of any piece of fabric. And I love to do drag performances in the city!”
Guilty pleasure: “Watching Carol Channing.”
Dream role: “Kitri in Don Quixote. And it’s a role that I’m already working on in rehearsals.”
(Photo via Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre)
In 2013, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre premiered a sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker. The production was designed to serve audience members with autism, or other sensory sensitivities. This year, the company will double its offering, performing The Nutcracker in December and Beauty and the Beast in February. In addition to Northwest Florida Ballet, which has performed a sensory-sensitive version of The Nutcracker for over 15 years, PBT is one of the few companies to offer this kind of performance.
A sensory-friendly performance is tailored to the audience in several specific ways: there are quiet areas outside of the theater, startling light and sound effects during the performance are minimized and the house rules are relaxed to allow families to stand up and move around when they need to.
PBT partnered with several local advocacy groups to make sure they were building the best possible experience for audience members with sensory-related special needs. In addition to sensory adjustments, PBT also offers audio descriptions, and large-print and braille programs for audience members who need additional support.
Congratulations to PBT (and Northwest Florida Ballet) for taking direct action to dismantle a barrier to accessibility. The company is giving that many more kids the chance to develop a love of ballet and dance.