At the urging of George Balanchine, New York City Ballet launched an education department in 1979 with the aim of developing new audiences for ballet. Balanchine was especially keen to share the magic of The Nutcracker with young children, so a new in-school program called The Nutcracker Project took root in public elementary schools across the city. One key component was attendance at a performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker held exclusively for the children participating in the program. Years later, The Nutcracker Project continues to bring the magic of ballet to children throughout New York City.
Celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year, The Nutcracker Project is a multi-week program that uses The Nutcracker storyline and characters to inspire students to discover their artistic voices through poetry and creative movement. NYCB Teaching Artists lead students and their classroom teachers on this journey, following a curriculum created by NYCB’s education department. Each of the six in-school workshops start with a warm-up that blends simple ballet technique and terminology with personal creativity, like doing a plié the way a toy soldier or the Mouse King might. For the grand finale, the children share their poem-inspired dance with other students at their school.
“One of the things that makes our program unique is the children are creating the work themselves. We’re not putting it on them. We’re there as guides and inspirations and to give them the tools to create,” says former NYCB Soloist Jennifer Tinsley-Williams, a NYCB Teaching Artist for seven years.
The program does, of course, prime children for watching George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in real time at Lincoln Center. “They scream and clap when the orchestra starts playing the overture,” says Tinsley-Williams. “But when they watch something that’s pure movement like the Snow Scene or Waltz of the Flowers or the Sugarplum Pas de Deux, they don’t move a muscle or make a sound. I ask what their favorite part of the ballet is, ninety-nine percent of the time they’ll say Snow. It’s pure music and dance, but it’s magical.”
The Nutcracker Project grew out of a “perfect storm of events,” as Laura Johnson, NYCB Senior Director of Education & Public Programs, explains. In the late 1970s, New York City’s Department of Education ramped up arts funding for public schools. At the same time, large cultural organizations, including NYCB, turned their focus to creating internal education departments, with programs for both adults and children.
Each spring, the Company invites public schools to enroll in The Nutcracker Project or one of its other two in-school programs. About 80 percent return annually, Johnson says, and several schools have held the program for more than a decade. Schools pay just 20 percent of the total program cost, and NYCB underwrites the rest with support from foundations, corporations, and individual donors.
The hope, of course, is that the seed is planted for the students to become lifelong ballet enthusiasts, or even to go on to pursue careers in dance. But for at least six weeks, more than 2,700 New York City children revel in the unique enchantment of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, the creativity The Nutcracker Project unleashes, and the inimitable beauty of a Balanchine masterpiece.
For more information about The Nutcracker Project and NYCB’s other school programs, visit nycballet.com/educate. To make a contribution in support of NYCB’s education programs, contact Member Services at [email protected].
Terry Trucco writes frequently on the arts and travel.