A Look Back at a Busy Outreach Season

Valerie Cookson-Botto
Educational Outreach Coordinator

I truly love what I do.

As Outreach Coordinator, I connect schools and the community with the art of ballet and bring it into places where it would be almost nonexistent otherwise. I can’t think of another job that would give me more satisfaction.

I work with artists and educators to spread the work of FBP and the power of dance into the community, as well as bring young audience members to see a ballet for the first time. In 2016 we brought over 3,000 students to main-stage ballet performances, presented lecture demonstrations to 1185 students and engaged 368 children at local libraries.

Nutcracker season is by far our busiest time of year, even though we have programs running year-round. The annual Nutcracker performance in December is accompanied by a wide variety of outreach events. We are able to connect with literacy standards in the school and community library story hours. As a classical ballet, The Nutcracker opens discussions about pointe shoes, tutus, pantomime, pas de deux, to name a few.

Library outreach workshop
Library outreach workshop

Our Library Workshops reach some of the youngest and neediest students in Rhode Island. For many children, this is the first time they get a chance to turn movement into storytelling and see ballet dancers. As we pass around pointe shoes for the children to touch and FBP ballerinas appear in their tutus en pointe, the wonder in their eyes fill us all with joy.

We also hit the road to visit schools, preparing students for their field trip to see The Nutcracker. For many of these students, this field trip is often their first time in a grand theater and their first time to see a ballet. While presenting a lecture demonstration at a kindergarten in Central Falls, one of the students gasps and called out, “Wow. I have never seen a real ballerina before. She is beautiful!” As we capture the attention and imagination of the students, we also teach them about theater etiquette and the history of ballet. We connect the performance they are going to see with their academic work in the classroom.

Outreach event at St. Pius V school
Outreach event at St. Pius V school

Ultimately, the most exciting outreach event is the actual performance at PPAC, where you can feel the energy from the moment the kids arrive. I have the privilege of seeing the excitement as they come off the bus and watch children’s faces come alive and their eyes widen as they experience the breathtaking size and ornate embellishments of the theater. When the students take their seats and the curtain goes up, these students are engaged for two hours in the magic of the ballet.

Their letters back to the company tell us that they are watching, listening, and relating to what they see on stage. They tell us that they are amazed a ballet can tell a whole story without any words and that dance can express emotion. They are inspired by the athleticism of the dancers and special theatrical effects of the production.

Every encounter I have with young audience members reinforces the importance of what our outreach does for the community. There is a need for dance in our schools, and school students need to experience the performing arts at the highest level.

Many years ago our FBP’s Artistic Director, Mihailo Djuric said to me that kids are the hardest audience to perform for because they are so honest. If you aren’t performing at a high level, they will become disinterested and let you know. If you are keeping them engaged, you know you are doing well. By the responses we receive from our young audience members, I think we are making quite an impact.

Valerie Cookson-Botto is Educational Outreach Coordinator for Festival Ballet Providence. To learn more about out Discover Dance programs, click here or email discover@festivalballetprovidence.org

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