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A Field Trip To A More Accessible Virtual Ballet

A video still from the Southern California Ballet's 2019 performance of

Credit: Courtesy of Poway On Stage

Above: A video still from the Southern California Ballet's 2019 performance of "The Nutcracker," which is part of the Poway On Stage "virtual field trip" program.

A new digital platform from Poway OnStage and Southern California Ballet is bringing the holiday classic "The Nutcracker" to thousands of schoolchildren — at no cost.

Sharlene O'Keefe, Poway OnStage's operations and program manager, developed the platform. O'Keefe has a background in arts education and a masters degree in dance, and she has been teaching the arts during distance learning. She's also watched the way her own kids learn on virtual platforms.

"So I tried to pull all of that together to create this virtual field trip experience," O'Keefe said. "I created something that was flexible for the teachers, and modular, so they can take their whole class through it in an hour and a half, or they can assign 30 minutes a day over the course of a week."

The platform combines video viewing with tutorials, interactive tours and other activities — combining the performance with asynchronous resources that make the ballet and arts education more accessible. The project adheres to the California Education Code visual and performing arts (VAPA) content standards — and is grant-funded.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Poway On Stage

A still from Poway On Stage's December 2020 virtual field trip presentation of "The Nutcracker" takes students through the history of the perfomance.

Participants will learn some basic historical facts about "The Nutcracker," tour a performing arts center and settle in for a truncated, explainer-style performance of the classic ballet.

Many of the individual dances within "The Nutcracker" are shortened, so that elementary-age students don't have to sit through long pieces. One example: The "Land of the Sweets" dances are included as shorter clips so viewers see the basic choreography, artistry and costumes associated with those characters, and understand which confection the dancers represent and each dance's place in the larger story.

Brief, periodic interruptions in the video and audio — with one-line captions and narration — describe what's happening and to whom, and what's up next.

"We're seeing a great combination of uses... teachers, parents, homeschooling. Really, the way that it's being used is so flexible," O'Keefe said.

Poway OnStage, which generally serves the Poway Unified School District, is now able to share their field trips with other districts in the region. O'Keefe said she's particularly interested in reaching parts of San Diego that aren't close to the performing arts or are less able to bus their students to a performance hall for a field trip during a typical school year.

Word got out — really out.

"We currently have 287,000 students who are signed up for the Nutcracker experience. It really went viral," said O'Keefe. "We're really seeing that extra reach across the nation and across the world. I didn't expect that when we started this."

In partnering with Southern California Ballet and prominently featuring the Poway Performing Arts Center in the virtual tour (pro tip: kids can walk the catwalk… and even “jump” onto the stage), local audiences can feel connected and inspired to be part of local performing arts.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Poway On Stage

The virtual tour of the Poway Performing Ars Center allows students to feel part of the behind-the-scenes elements of the arts. The tour is a component of Poway On Stage's "The Nutcracker" virtual field trip.

In the introductory, interactive history lesson, viewers can trace the history of "The Nutcracker" from its origin in Germany in 1816 as a story, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," by E.T.A. Hoffman, through early performances of the ballet. Finally, it ends in San Diego.

Southern California Ballet and O’Keefe worked together to pare down the longer sections of the story and edit the performance video from a previous year, which is excellent and approachable. Members of the ballet also helped craft tutorials on things like costume design, and actual choreography instruction videos.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Poway On Stage

A video still from Poway On Stage's virtual field trip for "The Nutcracker" enables students, parents and teachers to watch tutorials on dance and choreography, learn the art of pantomine or costume design and more.

This program isn't the first virtual field trip Poway OnStage has produced — earlier in the year they made one with singer Sonia De Los Santos — nor is it the last.

In January they'll pair with New York-based Grand Pistachio theater company to produce "Layer The Walls," a show using puppetry and masks to tell stories of immigration. In February they'll spotlight jazz music with musician Jazzy Ash (Ashli St. Armant), and in March, Catapult Shadow Dance Company will adapt Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons."

"This virtual platform is not going away," O'Keefe said. "We are very excited about the access that it's providing." She added that they're aiming for a hybrid model after students can return to field trips in performance halls.

To view their interactive and educational take on "The Nutcracker," families or teachers can still sign up online, and access links will be provided within a few hours. It is viewable through January 15th. While the platform is geared towards students in first to seventh grade, the whole family may also learn a thing or two.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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