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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Milwaukee Ballet’s Evolving Inclusion Strategies

A ballet instructor who is in a wheelchair teaches students in wheelchairs a modified ballet position.
Tour de Force Program Class with Company Artist Itzel Hernandez. Photo by Rachel Malehorn.

The holiday season brings with it many traditions, including, for lovers of dance, music, and theatrical productions, performances of the Nutcracker. This year, Milwaukee Ballet is proudly presenting a newly reimagined version of the classical holiday performance, The Nutcracker: Drosselmayer’s Imaginarium. The show is a feast of color and creativity, which the Chicago Tribune described as “utterly spectacular,” and Milwaukee Magazine called “enchanting,” with entirely newly designed and constructed costumes, set elements, and props, as well as some fresh performers, including 137 area school children.  


With this reimagining of the Nutcracker, Milwaukee Ballet has continued the tradition of offering a Sensory-Friendly performance, and saw a rise in the number of families with young children attending the performance. A special performance on Dec 13 was staged with the houselights up for the duration of the several-hours-long show, so that anyone could come and go easily or move around the theater as needed. Additionally, the live orchestral performance of the score was modulated to reduce volume spikes. This performance also included access to a special Quiet Room, created in consultation with Pink Umbrella Theatre Company, and staffed by Stepping Stones Educational Services, which was available to attendees to find quiet and calm, and to come and go if they need to reset or rest for any reason.  

“We encouraged the audience to use the Quiet Room from the onset as this was our first Sensory-Friendly show of the new production,” said Community Engagement Manager Rachel Howell. “We wanted the audience to have the resources to take care of themselves during the show. This year, we had more families use the Quiet Room than in previous years, plus all of our available noise-cancelling headphones were checked out, signaling that these are necessary supports for the performance.” 


These are just a few of the ways Milwaukee Ballet is seeking to deepen their connection to a broader audiences through leveraging their most popular show of the season. But the art form of ballet itself has challenges when it comes to welcoming new audiences. Milwaukee Ballet represents an art form that is often accessible only to the very privileged; by Milwaukee Ballet’s calculation, it takes over $100,000 to train a young ballerina from childhood up through age of 18. And that is just the financial cost. Partly because of the challenges of accessibility to ballet itself, inclusion practices are something that Milwaukee Ballet continually seeks to continually evolve and refine. 

A female and male dancer perform for school children.
ACE Partnership Performance. Photo by Rachel Malehorn.

“We recognize people could go their whole lives without seeing a ballet and they would be perfectly fine. But we think their lives would be better if they at least had a chance,” said Howell. But converting young audience members into ballet dancers is not the singular goal. Howell hopes that the diverse artistry that goes into staging performances also resonates for the public.  


“Maybe they'll think, ‘tutus are not for me,’ but maybe they have a little bit more to work with in terms of what they like and what they don't like,” said Howell. “Maybe they'll think, I didn't love the movement, but I loved the music,” said Howell. “They might then ask, ‘How would I go see more things like that’?” 


Because of its recognizability and broad appeal, the Nutcracker is a show that is particularly leveraged to reach out to new audiences, including school children, with the intention to spark joy and curiosity about the world of ballet, and the performing arts. This year, with the addition of a third School Matinee, nearly 4,000 student saw the world premiere.  


According to Howell, in the past, Milwaukee Ballet maintained a more widely touring show that connected them to many school children in the Milwaukee community. Today, like many performing arts organizations who’ve faced financial cutbacks after the pandemic, they’ve had to be discerning about which outreach and educational programs to continue or revive. 


Children in a gymnasium are learning movement from a ballerina.
ACE Partnership Performance. Photo Rachel Malehorn.

“We have a partnership with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and we go out every spring and we visit about 15 schools. And they give us elementary school children who get to see a very sweet production about the history of ballet.” 


The partnership has enabled Milwaukee Ballet to continue to visit a number of area schools every year, participating in two culminating performances. The partnership allows them to see students all over the area that they might not otherwise get to experience performances annually.   


Because of the changed landscape of the performing arts sector, including audiences that have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, the team at Milwaukee Ballet is now in a discovery process, thinking through the best ways to engage with schools.   


While they look at sustainable models, Milwaukee Ballet is now seeking to build out more opportunities for youth engagement. But a challenge has been whether to focus on reaching a broad and inclusive audience, in terms of demographics and geography, or focusing resources on building out additional programming through existing relationships.  


A child learns ballet positions from a dance instructor.
Ballet Beat Workshop. Photo by Rachel Malehorn.

“If we work broadly and give every kiddo a chance to see a production, what does that do to our city? Does it give us a different language to talk about things? Does it offer this gateway to other art possibilities? We don't know. We know that we tried an in-depth process for a long time and had wonderful success in relationships with some schools, but it is difficult to replicate in the current climate and we were left with whole parts of the city that we've never touched,” said Howell.  


Now the team at Milwaukee Ballet pours over Milwaukee city maps to create their ticketing outreach strategy.  


“I think at last count we are close to hitting 20 districts with free or extremely reduced tickets. So we're just starting there, getting as many people to our shows as possible,” reflected Howell.  


Transportation continues to be a huge challenge for sparking new relationships or reinvigorating partnerships.  


“Even for the Nutcracker, we've been in conversation with lots of schools, like, how do we make this happen, and how do we make it sustainable? Said Howell. “We want you to come. Even if we offer you free tickets, can you afford a bus? That's usually the conversation. And sometimes the answer is ‘no.’ “ 


However, with the building of a new space, the Baumgartner Center for Dance, located in the Third Ward, Milwaukee Ballet also received funding that has been earmarked specifically for bringing students onsite from a variety of different neighborhoods all over the city, increasing the range of schools they can engage with.  


“Our hope is that through this funding, which allows us to bring students to our center, we will be able to continue to introduce ballet to new audiences. We were lucky to get this funding which specifically addresses the transportation gap we have been facing.”  


This year, they are developing a new 5-year plan to use these funds to support children experiencing the Momentum program from MBII, Milwaukee Ballet’s young and emerging company of professionals, —in part, because of its broad appeal as a program of both contemporary and classical ballet performances. Shows staged in the theatre at the Baumgartner Center for Dance are intimate, as well, so provide an up-close performance experience for audiences. 


Milwaukee Ballet does still engage deeply with three schools on the south side through the program called Relevé that offers students 24 weeks of in-school training, and a recital showcase at the end of the year. One of the partner schools has been collaborating with Milwaukee Ballet on the program for over 30 years.  


“When we think about outreach work or peace building work, these kinds of sustained relationships are the exception rather than the rule. But we got into these schools at a time when, when this was possible, and we've on both ends have worked hard to maintain these relationships,” offered Howell.  


As they look to potentially expand in new ways into new communities, they are also looking beyond schools, including a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee. But giving only short-term exposure to ballet can also be a mixed bag in terms of the students’ enjoyment. As Howell points out, the beginning of the study of ballet can be quite tedious and repetitive, and not something all students will universally find appealing.   


“It’s like practicing your scales. When students come some of them are like, ‘when are we twirling’? 


As Milwaukee Ballet considers the efficacy of short-term residencies, whether or not the form of ballet hooks kids to want to learn more, Howell sees the engagement as positive, as an activity that may lead to self-discovery.  


“We want them leaving feeling good, even if that's just because they've been in their body for an hour. It feels good to know yourself a little bit more.”  


“We’re learning a lot there as to whether shorter term residencies are a possibility,” said Howell. “We could get to more schools, sure, but is that the best way to share ballet?” 


The goal is also to define the future of relationship-building with schools and other partners towards building sustained relationships with students and even with their families. This year, Milwaukee Ballet is trying to highlight the reciprocal nature of what’s being shared in these relationships by asking partners to sign off on partnership agreements. With that, they are hoping to foster “a feeling of buy-in from both sides.” 


Overall, the main challenge they face continues to be funding transportation for children who attend schools that lack space to host workshops, classes, and stages for performances.  


“The busing has become so cost prohibitive,” said Howell. But that has led to some schools emerging as new sites for programming. One school had a stage that was going unused, and so we are going to be able to do programming there. And they remain open to opportunities like this.  


“Because this school had a stage available, we hope to pilot another program this spring that we think might lead to adding another school. It was a relatively easy switch for the school that led to big gains for us,” said Howell.  

A group of children sit on the floor with legs widened and arms extended above their heads.
Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee Partnership Class. Photo by Rachel Malehorn.

 Howell notes that the aftershocks of the pandemic lockdowns are also felt in pressures within schools when educators have to keep pace and, in some cases, catch up from lost time in-person. As a result, Howell notes that often school administrators that she speaks with are struggling to find time to fit in or justify integrating these artistic, non-academic programs.  


Beyond the confines of the academic calendar, another major way that Milwaukee Ballet is reaching young people is through their Discover Dance Camp, a fully funded educational dance survey opportunity for youths.  


“We are trying to fund our kids coming out of Relevé and Discover Dance Camp into MKE Ballet School and Academy for at least two years so that families and kids have a chance to see high level training. And that's exciting to us; we like to believe the work that we're doing is broadening the pipeline. Ballet continues to be an overwhelmingly white art form particularly in Milwaukee. And so we want to make sure that kids see themselves with other diverse kids in their classroom.” 


Milwaukee Ballet is also prioritizing recruiting professional teachers who are Latinx and Black, so that the students in Discover Dance Camp and in-school programs can feel seen and supported.  


“What we understand is that kids really have to see people that look like themselves doing something to help envision that they themselves can do it. We’ve worked hard to put people in our classrooms, especially in our in-school programming, where it's largely kids of color.” 


An instructor, who is a person of color, teaches a diverse group of students positions on the barre.
Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee Partnership Class. Photo Rachel Malehorn.

Howell’s hope is that with this kind of representation directed towards youth, that the tide will turn and dance companies across the nation will soon see more equitable and diverse representation within their ranks.  


Milwaukee Ballet is also looking to use their community outreach budget in new ways to make it go further, including exploring getting on the bill at more community events and continuing to be a part of summer events like Washington Park Wednesdays. They hope to continue to host Ballet Beat performances throughout the community as well, which have historically welcomed community dance partners like Hmong American Friendship Association, to present diverse dance showcases at locations including the Summerfest grounds. Past performances have also presented ballet in conjunction with Hip Hop and spoken word poetry, to show audiences that ballet as an art form continues to evolve and isn’t constrained by its classical roots.  


Howell invites the public—no matter what your relationship is to ballet—to support the mission of Milwaukee Ballet through attending live performances.  


“Get involved and come to anything in our season, plus, stay tuned in to other opportunities when we are performing, such as Ballet Beat. We just love for people to come and see their Milwaukee Ballet performing.” 


You can also support Milwaukee Ballet’s outreach efforts by helping to underwrite the attendance of school children this holiday season through Milwaukee Ballet’s Angel Fund. 


“If you come to one of our Nutcracker shows, or if you come to our boutique, you can buy a little ornament; half of that funds of that sale supports our student matinees. So if you buy an ornament, you're literally sending a kid to the ballet.” 

A child is smiling widely as he peers over a seat in the theatre during a production of the Nutcracker.
Sensory Friendly Performance. Photo Rachel Malehorn.


“Whether you come to a show, take a class through our School and Academy, or make a donation, you are supporting the work that we do in community engagement,” said Howell. “We think there is a need in our city and our world to invite people to see stories and experiences told through the body, to connect with others through live performance, to offer training in this incredibly technically demanding form, and to give these opportunities to as many people as possible. We hope you will join us in our efforts to make ballet accessible to all.” 


Milwaukee Ballet’s The Nutcracker: Drosselmeyer’s Imaginarium is being performed through Dec 26.  


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