Learning ‘The Nutcracker,’ College students Hear, Contact, Transfer Like Snow

On a November afternoon, seven young students spun, hopped, and raised their chests to the sky while Waltz of the Snowflakes from “The Nutcracker” played over their computer speakers. They gathered for a weekly Zoom course and had come to part of what one of their teachers, Jenny Seham, called the “freestyle snow dance”: a moment to experience, through improvised movement, the wonder of Tchaikovsky’s music and the freedom of to channel swirling snow.

“You really captured the feeling for me,” said Ms. Seham when they were finished. “The most important thing is that you hear the music.”

Listening is a fundamental skill for anyone learning to dance, but especially for Ms. Seham’s students. A longtime teaching artist at the National Dance Institute, which provides dance education to children in New York City, Ms. Seham has worked with blind and visually impaired students for over a decade in collaboration with the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg (FMDG) Music School.

This year, for the first time, the music school, which helps students of all ages with vision loss, is offering a five-week “Nutcracker” recognition course to bring the holiday classic to life in a multi-sensory way. Under the direction of Ms. Seham and Dalia Sakas, the head of musicology at the music school, the course provides background information on the history, history and cultural context of “The Nutcracker” (presented a little differently for children, teenagers and adults).

Each student also receives a packet of “Nutcracker” artifacts: a pointe shoe, a candy cane, a long strip of tulle (from which tutus are made), a summary of the story and a glossary in large print or Braille, sheet music with portions of Tchaikovsky’s score, and of course a nutcracker.

Perhaps most importantly, the class allows students to imagine ballet through movement – to experience aspects of the work through their own bodies.

“You can’t sit in the audience and see the snow, but you can be the snow,” Ms. Seham said in a telephone interview. “For me, this class is about being dance.”

While the course is uncharted territory for the music school – a “beta tester” for teaching ballet appreciation, Ms. Sakas said – it also builds on existing programs. Founded in 1913 (formerly part of the larger Lighthouse Guild), the school has a long tradition of illuminating visual art through music. Since 1997, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has held an annual concert that combines pieces from the museum’s collection with “music that strengthens the spirit of the work of art,” said Ms. Sakas. Over the past few years, students have written poetry that influences the choices of music and art.

The Nutcracker course extends this idea to dance and opens up a fantastic world that the students may only know by name. “Although they cannot see, they are aware that there is a ‘Mona Lisa’. They know these images exist, “said Ms. Sakas.” Why shouldn’t you also be aware of the dance? ? “

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the music school put its classes online, a postponement that was restrictive in some ways but also “allowed us to dream a little” and try new things, Ms. Sakas said. Prior to the pandemic, children and teenagers from the school met for weekly face-to-face classes with Ms. Seham and National Dance Institute volunteer alumni who acted as exercise partners, guiding and working with students through physical contact. (The program is one of many programs from the Dance Institute, founded in 1976 by New York ballet star Jacques d’Amboise to make dance more accessible to children.)

“When we were able to meet in person, tactile instruction was a really important element,” said Ms. Seham. “Obviously we can’t do that online so we’re left with an audio description” – the steps are clearly and directly detailed – “and when we find we can, it’s just a little slower.”

To introduce students to the traditional music and history of “The Nutcracker,” Ms. Sakas and Ms. Seham shared excerpts from a 1993 video recording of the flag bearer: George Balanchine’s 1954 version for the New York Ballet, in which a The Young Girl Marie travels with the Nutcracker Prince to the kingdom of the sugar plum fairy (the land of sweets).

But Ms. Seham said she also wants students to learn more about contemporary versions of the classic – with different characters, attitudes, music and dance styles – and imagine their own. For example, she introduced them to Donald Byrd’s 1996 Harlem Nutcracker, which contains jazz arrangements by Tchaikovsky, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Students are asked to consider, “What would your Nutcracker be? What would your magical journey be? “She said,” And how would that encompass what’s happening now and who you are? “

These questions reflect Ms. Seham’s general approach to teaching at the music school, where she often combines dance with issues of social justice. Many of her students, she said, are children of color who face various forms of discrimination in their daily lives. “When we talk about systemic racism and lack of access and inclusion, you are right in the middle,” she said. “And so I want them to be able to express and show themselves through the arts.”

For the “Nutcracker” course, Ms. Seham taught some basic ballet steps while leaving room for personal interpretation. “How you interpret it, how you feel the ups and downs is entirely up to you,” she told a group of students aged 12 to 17, referring to the back footwork of a pas de bourrée, a structured preface to it “Freestyle Snow”. “You can’t really screw up,” she added.

In the absence of physical contact as a teaching tool, the items in the Nutcracker package offer a different type of tactile experience. Daniel Gillen, 26, a pianist and long-time student at the music school, said the texture of the tulle surprised him. During adult classes, he danced with the billowing cloth wrapped around his waist. “I didn’t think it would be that porous,” he said in a telephone interview. “Because all the air gets through, it becomes almost lighter than air.”

When opening the package, some students came across a pointe shoe for the first time. (The shoes were collected by Daniel Ulbricht, a New York ballet director, and signed by members of the company who wore them.)

“In all honesty, I’d never seen or heard one before,” said Matthew Herrera, 12, over the phone. “It’s cool to see what real professionals are wearing.”

Matthew, who is visually impaired and has attended Ms. Seham’s classes for six years, said improvising as a musician studying piano and singing is one of his strengths – and that goes for dance too. As he danced like snow, he tried to think “how it moves in the wind”.

“I have a feeling that everyone, at least every now and then, should just let themselves go, especially through arts, including dance,” he said. “It’s fun to do. It is a beautiful thing. “

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