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Demand continues to rise for autism-friendly ‘Nutcracker’ performance

By Genelle Pugmire - | Dec 10, 2021

Courtesy Utah Metropolitan Ballet

The battle scene from the Utah Metropolitan Ballet production of "The Nutcracker."

Like Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” there isn’t a holiday season that goes by — except when COVID-19 hit — that the traditional “Nutcracker” ballet isn’t shown somewhere in Utah.

For some families who have children with autism, that Christmas tradition is harder to make a reality. The reason? Often their children have challenges that can make it difficult to attend plays, musical performances and other family cultural events.

At least for one organization, that loss has been put in check. The Utah Metropolitan Ballet, based at the Covey Center in Provo, is doing its part to make all children and their families exposed to the popular “Nutcracker” through its Autism Outreach program.

Every year, UMB presents a full-scale professional production of the holiday classic. And every year, one full night’s performance is offered free to families where a member has autism.

Now being offered for the eighth year, demand for the performance has grown far beyond the ballet’s ability to accommodate.

Courtesy Utah Metropolitan Ballet

The party scene from the Utah Metropolitan Ballet production of "The Nutcracker."

This year, Utah Metropolitan Ballet has received requests for over 1,250 tickets, with more coming in every day. But they will only be able to fulfill about half of those requests, with available funding limiting them to just one free show. Each show costs $17,000 to produce because this is a professional and the performance, dancers, tech and lighting crews must be paid.

“Utah Metropolitan Ballet dancers are comprised of a talented and unique group of accomplished performers,” said Ellen Christenson, president of the UMB board of trustees. “Our artists come from all walks of life, hailing from regions as far as Brazil and Japan to everywhere in between. They dance with passion and remarkable athleticism, providing a rich and diverse tapestry of artistic expression.”

The board and the Autism Outreach program is hoping that individuals, families and businesses will step up this year and in the next few days gather the funds necessary to put on a second show for these families.

Paul Richardson, who serves on the UMB board of trustees, said the free show was inspired by a conversation he had with the mother of a child with autism.

“She said how hard it was for them to do anything — to go out to eat, to go out to a movie. Everywhere they’d go, they felt judged,” Richardson said. Eventually, they stopped going places.

Courtesy Utah Metropolitan Ballet

The finale in the Utah Metropolitan Ballet production of "The Nutcracker."

Richardson saw an opportunity to serve families like hers and proposed doing the free show. The board loved it.

Carolyn, a mother of a child with autism, said her family appreciated being able to see the iconic holiday production without having to worry.

“We didn’t have to shush him, we didn’t have to take him out. It was really fun for the family just to be able to go and be ourselves and just enjoy,” she said in a recorded interview.

Dancers with the company say that the autism show is one of their favorites. Mallory Moon Wilson, former principal artist with the company, said, “The most meaningful opportunity that I have ever experienced performing with the company comes from the autism show. There’s something about it that is magical.”

Kids run up and down the aisles and yell at the dancers from their seats, and everyone loves it. “Because no one is judging — no one cares,” said Richardson. “In fact, we love it. It makes it even more fun to have the interaction with the crowd.”

Richardson speaks from firsthand experience. When you see the Nutcracker, you’ll see him on stage, dressed in a garishly loud dress with gaudy makeup, walking on stilts, playing the traditional role of Mother Ginger.

“The Nutcracker” is shortened a bit for the families with added narration to explain what’s going on, according to Christenson.

“We have had families come to this show from all over the state of Utah as well as Wyoming and Idaho,” Christenson said. “Utah Metropolitan Ballet’s free performance for families affected by autism is made possible through the generosity of donors such as yourself.”

The performance for families affected by autism will take place at 7 p.m. Monday at the Covey Center in Provo.

If they can find the money for a second performance, they have their sights on Dec. 20 at 5 p.m. for the show. They are hoping the community can step up and help these families give their children a Christmas present they won’t forget.

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