Family Day at the theater: How to enjoy the ballet with young kids    

New York City Ballet in Gianna Reisen's 'Composer's Holiday'. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
New York City Ballet in Gianna Reisen's 'Composer's Holiday'. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. 
April 7, 2019.            

Last Sunday morning, I packed up the whole family and headed to Washington, D.C. to participate in one of the Kennedy Center’s new Family Dance Workshops taught by visiting artists. After the workshop, my husband took the baby out to enjoy the sunshine on the National Mall while my five-year-old daughter, Adelina, and I also stuck around for the New York City Ballet (NYCB)’s matinee. Although it ended up being quite a long day for us, I am happy to report that our family day at the ballet was a great success, and we would definitely be up for another Kennedy Center family adventure in the future. That said, I do have some hard-earned advice for brave parents considering making the trek out for future Family Dance Workshops at the Kennedy Center or similar happenings elsewhere.

First of all, we made a rookie mistake, and we did not check out what else was happening in D.C. on that morning. If we had done our homework, we would have realized that we were heading into the city right as the Cherry Blossom Festival Marathon was ending. Needless to say, there was way more traffic than we expected, so we ended up arriving a bit late for the workshop and missed the first few minutes. Fortunately, the parking at the Kennedy Center is easy and quick, and the staff who were managing the event were very gracious and accommodating despite our late arrival. I quickly signed the required waiver to participate, and then we ran into the roped off area in front of the Millennium Stage to find a spot to dance. 

Family Day at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Angella Foster.

Family Day at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Angella Foster.

My daughter was immediately enchanted by the rainbow colored dots stuck to the plush red carpet throughout the workshop space, and I was impressed that they were secured to the floor by velcro; somebody was really thinking on that one. And then came the moment when I realized I had made another huge mistake.

We were there to do a family dance workshop with NYCB. I run a recreational dance program, and my daughter takes multiple dance classes, including ballet, in my program. Of course, my daughter has an extensive wardrobe of hand-me-down tights, leotards and dance shoes of all kinds. And yet, unlike other parents who were clearly on their game, I had not thought to have Adelina wear or bring any of her accoutrement with us that day. When she saw the other little girls wearing their ballet slippers, she was on the verge of real tears, so you bet we will be dressing for the occasion next time. Luckily, seeing real life NYCB dancers Taylor Stanley and Ashley Laracey up on the Millennium Stage was exciting enough that she was able to regain her composure and jump into the lesson in progress. Word to wise parents, definitely break out your kid’s dance gear and at least throw some ballet or jazz slippers in your bag for the day.

Guest artists Laracey and Stanley were directing the lesson from the stage on headset, and they were also being videotaped with their image projected simultaneously on a screen mounted above the stage. They were accompanied by an excellent pianist, Nancy McDill, and assisted by several local professional dancers who were dressed in all black and circulating among the workshop participants. When we arrived, Laracey and Stanley were leading the assembled group through the basic ballet positions of the arms and legs, and then they moved on to some other ballet basics such as passé and relevé. After introducing the basics, they taught us two different two dances — a ballet-based story dance about a bug in a garden and a simplified chunk of the “Mambo” from West Side Story. There was plenty of room to move because the area roped off for the workshop was quite large, and there were only about 60 people in attendance. Most of the crowd was comprised of parents with kids under eight, but there were some adults who appeared to be in attendance without kids who were also having a great time. 

My daughter really enjoyed learning the bug dance and “performing” that with me as her pas de deux partner, but she was getting tired and hungry by the time they started teaching the mambo. I may have failed to check the traffic and bring Adelina’s ballet slippers, but I did bring a whole bag of snacks. While Adelina took a break, I grabbed the baby from my husband, and he was all smiles dancing with me while I learned the mambo. For the record, Adelina was certainly not alone on her snack break. Forty-five minutes is a long time for young kids to stay focused, and so lots of little ones spent most the last 15 minutes snacking or just lying draped over the nearby steps. Once Adelina finished her snack, she rejoined the workshop, and we danced most of the remainder of the mambo as a trio with baby on my hip. Even though the tempo was slower than standard, the mambo section was still a bit fast for most folks to keep up with, especially all the young kids in the crowd. Overall, the workshop was a fun experience for us as a family, but it would have been helpful if the tempos had been a little slower.

After the workshop, I chatted with a few of the assistant instructors and found out that they were staffed for the events through a partnership with Joy of Motion Dance Center. One of the assistant instructors, Sylvana Christopher, also worked the first Family Dance Workshop with American Ballet Theatre, which had a much larger turn-out. As a local performer and educator, she said she “applauded the Kennedy Center for making space and time for families, especially for those with disabilities” as part of their new outreach initiatives. Hopefully, the lower turn-out for the second workshop will not deter the Kennedy Center from offering such workshops in the future.

While most families headed out for the day after the workshop, we were in it for the long haul with plans to grab lunch and stick around for 1:30pm matinee performance of NYCB. I did not pack lunch for our family of four, so we walked toward the Foggy Bottom metro stop to get something to eat at a nearby restaurant. We could have taken the free shuttle bus over there, but it was a nice day and breaking the stroller down is tricky, which meant walking was preferable. As we were walking away, Adelina saw the fountains in front of the Kennedy Center and decided that she wanted to eat her lunch outside, so we ended up coming right back after we got our food. If the weather is nice, I highly recommend packing enough food for lunch and eating outside. There is a restaurant upstairs in the Kennedy Center as well with some excellent options, but it isn’t so family-friendly if you have really young kids in tow.

After eating, we headed in to grab our tickets from will call and find our seats in the Opera House. I waited to get our seats as late as possible so Adelina wouldn’t have to wait too long for the show to start. We had just enough time to admire the gorgeous crystal light fixtures before they dimmed, and heavy, red velvet curtain lifted to reveal the dancers in places for the opening number, Composer’s Holiday. This playful dance for 12 dancers was choreographed by Gianna Reisen, who has the distinction of being the youngest choreographer to make a ballet for NYCB. Adelina was a big fan of costumes by American designer Virgil Abloh, featuring light, airy contemporary dresses with short romantic-style tutus. They definitely had a fun, youthful vibe that I don’t usually associate with NYCB, and the soft, pastels colors gave me the feeling of spring as the dancers jumped, turned and slid across the stage. Without being derivative, Reisen’s simple but joyfully expressive choreography reminded me of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade in its effusiveness and smart use of accumulating phrases. Reisen’s work was a great show opener and seemed warmly received by the whole audience, including the young dancer in the seat next to me.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's 'Kammermusik No. 2'. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s ‘Kammermusik No. 2’. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

In contrast, George Balanchine’s Kammermusik No. 2 was a bit tough for my little ballet fan to sit through, and, truth be told, it was also my least favorite work on the program. Performed by two featured couples and an eight-man corps de ballet, the speed and complexity of Kammermusik No. 2  certainly echoed the Paul Hindemith composition on which it was set. While I admired the machine-like precision of the two female leads, I was somewhat bewildered by the gestalt of the male ensemble’s choreography, which had a solidly Martha Graham feel to me. I will admit that it was fascinating to see a strong, male corps attack the kind of jagged lines and awkward shapes I usually associated with Graham’s all-female ensembles , and, for their part, the men danced well. What made me cringe a bit was the juxtaposition of the men against the two female leads dressed in pastel blue leotard dresses with ponytails bopping as they did some lightning-speed petit allegro. The women and men seemed to be inhabiting parallel universes on stage, and maybe that was the point, but it seemed disjointed to me. In any case, Adelina was also getting super-squirmy, which probably contributed to the tension for me.

Fortunately, the weather was still gorgeous outside, so Adelina was able to run, skip, turn and leap outside around the fountains during the first intermission. By the time we headed back into the theater, she was ready to cozy up in her seat again for Jerome Robbins’ Opus 19 / The Dreamer. This ballet for 14 dancers focuses on the relationship between the lead couple, portrayed by Gonzalo Garcia as the Dreamer and Sterling Hyltin as his partner and elusive muse. My daughter was convinced that Sterling was the same dancer who led the workshop before the show because she was as slim, blonde and lovely as Laracey. Since she was having such fun seeing “her teacher” on-stage, I decided to play along. Although I feel like I have seen more dream ballets like this than I can remember, I enjoyed the full, lush movement of the corps and the emotional commitment of the leads. The lovely, evocative lighting by Ronald Bates functioned as a third character in the drama at times, and, as a bonus to parents everywhere, none of the near black-outs were sudden or harsh enough to bring little ones to tears for fear of the dark.

After a second intermission running around in the sunshine, Adelina and I returned to the theater for the final work on the program, Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, this work has been a signature piece for NYCB since Balanchine revived the dance for the company a year later. For its 2012 spring season, NYCB’s director of costumes, Marc Happel, updated the costumes with designs created in collaboration with Swarovski. My very sleepy five-year-old perked up and clapped her hands in delight as the curtain rose to reveal a stage full of ballerinas clad in sparkling white classical tutus. In fact, most of the adult audience members also gasped and broke into spontaneous applause at the sight of more Swarovski crystals gleaming than I have ever seen on stage at one time. I had some doubts about the wisdom of dragging my little gal back in for the finale of the program, but all was saved by the mesmerizing power of crystal bling. With most of the company plus some apprentices on stage, Symphony in C was a definitely a showcase piece in the classical vein with lots of sweeping entrances and exits and all the flashy jumps and turns that make a ballet audience break out into applause. It was definitely a crowd pleaser and very inspiring to all the young dancers in the audience. As we left the theater, Adelina was not the only young performer giving a post-performance in the lobby as the rest of the crowd dispersed.

So, should you take your five-year-old dance-lover to the Kennedy Center for the day? Definitely! Just make sure to check the traffic, pack some ballet slippers and lots of snacks. And, for full disclosure, I will confess that we also purchased a cookie before the show as an intermission treat, as well as a plastic tiara at the gift shop after the show as a souvenir. So, maybe pack a little spending money if you can, and enjoy!

By Angella Foster of Dance Informa.

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