RAHWAY, NJ — Wearing whiskers to match their mouse suits and pink tails that slink behind them, six Rahway children will scurry their way onstage at Union County Performing Arts Center for a pivotal scene in “Nutcracker” on Saturday, Nov. 21, and Sunday, Nov. 22, when they will play the role of Community Mice.
It’s the fourth year in a row that American Repertory Ballet, which boasts one of the country’s longest-running productions of “Nutcracker,” will bring the beloved holiday special to the arts-loving city of Rahway. But incorporating local children into the play, said Lisa Beth Vettoso, the group’s director of Educational and Community Programming, is unprecedented.
“What we love the most about Rahway is it’s definitely a community where the arts are very much a central focus. We have had a lot of connection with the town and the community. Both the artistic community and the educational community have been huge supporters and great partners with us,” said Vettoso. “This is a way for people in Rahway, and the surrounding communities, to come out and not only let their
children experience their very first ‘Nutcracker,’ but to potentially do so knowing someone on-stage.”
The six children that were selected to perform at this year’s “Nutcracker,” according to ARB, are Madison Ferreira and Elisha Mena from Franklin School; Raquelle Reinoso from Madison School; Kyra Jones and Evan Martin from Roosevelt School; and Anastasia Rachinsky from St. John Vianney. Friends and families can see the children during the play’s dream scene, in which armies of mice and toy soldiers battle each other as protagonist Clara watches on. And for the young dancers, valuable learning experiences can come out of preparing for the role, from practicing with pros beforehand to performing for hundreds of people.
“As far as what they get out of it, number one, we hope it’s fun. Our goal is to be fun. Number two, just that opportunity to work alongside professionals,” said Vettoso. “To be up on a huge stage in a professional venue, with people whose livelihoods is to dance, is an amazing opportunity. I think, ultimately, to instill a love of the art form, whether it’s something they look to do in the future from a performance or career perspective, or just going forward they want to come back and support the arts.”
This is the first season with the Community Mice initiative, said Vettoso, and the early results have been great. The children are “really fantastic,” have grasped new techniques quickly, and already have a solid foundation for choreography. And incorporating young performers, added Vettoso, is something with which ARB already has experience.
“Our production typically has 100 cast members, and it’s a combination of the professional dancers from our company, our pre-professional trainees, as well as students from our Princeton ballet school. So there has always been an emphasis, in our production, on students and children having an opportunity to work alongside professionals,” said Vettoso. “This was a way to connect more with the community of our venue.”
Connecting with the community through the Community Mice, added Vettoso, is one of the reasons Rahway residents should come out for the public performance of “Nutcracker” on Saturday, Nov. 21. It’s a program that makes the arts more inviting, including for students.
And there’s another, similar purpose behind the following evening’s performance, which is Sensory Friendly. That means it’s been tailored specifically for children, adults and families with special needs, said Vettoso.
In other words, ARB is taking out anything that’s too jarring, such as loud noises that could frighten people, for the goal of putting on a “Nutcracker” show which anyone can enjoy.
“The theme of that production is to really allow anybody to be able to attend, no matter what their restrictions are. There are certain policies in place where we don’t turn the house lights all the way down, there are opportunities for people to leave and take a break, and then come back,” said Vettoso. “There’s a little bit more freedom to the experience, so somebody who might not be able to ordinarily come to a performance can feel comfortable in that environment. It’s part of making the arts accessible to everyone.”