From its initial setting at a family Christmas Eve party to its second-act extravaganza of dancing confections, led by the famed Sugar Plum Fairy, it's easy to see why "The Nutcracker" ballet has become a seasonal staple for families.
To ensure that more families have a chance to enjoy the holiday spectacle, Pacific Ballet Academy is offering a sensory- and autism-friendly "Nutcracker" performance on Nov. 27 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (MVCPA). The show will cap off the academy's run of "The Nutcracker," featuring its students, Nov. 25-27.
The Nov. 25 and 26 performances feature a full-length, two-hour production, and on Nov. 27, the company will present Act I of "The Nutcracker" at noon, a 45-minute performance suited for small children who may not be able to sit through a longer show. Then at 2 p.m., the company will present its sensory-friendly performance of the ballet's Act II, in a setting with scaled-down production elements like lighting and sound.
"I also come out on stage, I tell them the story and what to expect and things like you clap at the end," said Pacific Ballet Academy Director Rima Chaeff.
For audience members that feel overwhelmed, there are stress balls to squeeze, and if being in the theater becomes too much, the lobby will have a quiet zone, where people can watch the show on monitors.
The show also features lighting in the audience area for anyone who may be afraid of the dark and the overall atmosphere in the theater will be more relaxed when it comes to audiences talking or reacting during the performance.
"I think there's a real joy in knowing that you bring your child and they can stand up, they can make noises and they're not going to be judged," Chaeff said.
She also pointed out that the performance is open to everyone, so families with children who don't have sensory issues or autism, but would enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere and shorter performance are welcome to attend.
Chaeff noted that the academy is not the first to offer such a performance in the area — Menlowe Ballet for several years presented an abbreviated, sensory-friendly performance of its holiday show, "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker," and Peninsula Youth Theatre, which frequently performs at MVCPA, has also offered similar performances.
Pacific Ballet Academy's sensory-friendly performance came about after MVCPA Booking Coordinator Jenn Poret approached Chaeff with the idea several years ago after some of the center's staff attended a conference.
"She (Poret) came back saying, 'We have to do this. We just have to be more open and more inclusive.' So she reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to do this," Chaeff said.
They worked with a consultant to design a show suited for young audience members who might be overwhelmed by many elements of a traditional production and theater-going experience.
The Mountain View Center for Performing Arts also offers a "pre-visit" guide that helps prepare for a theatrical experience. The guide describes a typical visit to the theater, with photos and short descriptions that cover the many sights and sounds that a visitor can expect to encounter when going to see a show.
Though the ballet is overall quite family-friendly, Chaeff said that for the sensory-friendly show, the company settled on presenting Act II, which sees main character Clara transported to a magical land of sweets who dance for her. Its whimsical setting and series of short dances made it the best fit.
"We decided against doing the first act because there's a party scene which is actually very nice, but there's also a fight scene," she said, which may be difficult for some viewers.
This will be the third time that Pacific Ballet Academy has staged a sensory-friendly performance. The company presented it once before the pandemic and then again last year.
Chaeff said that several of her own friends with autistic children, including a longtime friend who's experienced the ballet from the other side of the footlights, have attended.
"She was a former student of mine who was in the original 'Nutcracker.' She brought her son and I think she was really happy to be able to share with him something that was such a big part of her life," she said.
As for what audiences take away from the performance, Chaeff said, "I just hope that they enjoy the wonderful music and dancing and that it gets them in the holiday spirit and that they relax and enjoy it along with their children. I want to have as many people enjoy 'The Nutcracker' as possible."
The Pacific Ballet Academy's sensory-friendly Nutcracker takes place Nov. 27, 2 p.m. and is preceded by a performance of Act I only at noon. Tickets for either performance are $15. The company's full-length performances take place Nov. 25, 6 p.m. and Nov. 26, 1 and 6 p.m.. Tickets are $25-$40. All performances are held at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. 650-903-6000 or tickets.mvcpa.com.