Patrons enjoy SF Ballet’s Sensory Friendly Performance of Tomasson's Nutcracker // © Lindsey Rallo



San Francisco Ballet presented its first ever Sensory Friendly Performance on December 21, 2022, to a nearly sold-out crowd of 2,200 people in the Opera House. This milestone performance of Nutcracker, designed in partnership with Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area, aimed to create a welcoming and judgement-free performing arts experience for neurodiverse audience members of all ages and abilities. “SF Ballet is not only dedicated to artistic excellence, but also to sharing the joy of dance through inclusive accessibility to ballet,” said Associate Director of Education Jasmine Yep Huynh. “Since 2015, we have partnered with Autism Society and other Bay Area organizations to design and present our annual Sensory Friendly Workshops in the studio, but this was our first full-length performance specifically intended for neurodiverse audiences in the Company’s 90-year history.”

Sensory Friendly performances are designed to create a welcoming experience for people with autism, sensory sensitivities, and other physical, cognitive, or developmental disabilities, and their families and friends. Slight technical modifications were made to the production including the removal of some loud sounds and startling moments, as well as dimly lit house lights on for the duration of the performance. Audience etiquette expectations were relaxed to create a safe and comfortable environment for guests to experience this magical holiday tradition on their own terms. Designated quiet areas and movement spaces were made available, and patrons were welcome to come and go as needed, vocalize, clap, and dance along during the show.

The energy and excitement in the lobby was palpable as audience members entered the Opera House lobby—many of them for the first time ever—and explored the tactile pointe shoes and props tables, took photos with Nutcracker characters, and tried on a tutu. BRAVO volunteers and staff serving as Kindness Ambassadors distributed tactile bags with fidget objects and other sensory tools, as well as Social Story and Visual Checklist Resources to help guide patrons through the Nutcracker experience. From the moment the curtain lifted and Drossylmeyer appeared on stage, the audience was buzzing with enthusiasm and pure joy.

For many families with special needs children, the theater-going experience is one they often feel nervous to attend or excluded from altogether, but at this performance their needs were put first. “What this performance gives these families the opportunity to do is do what every other family takes for granted,” says Jill Escher, former President of Autism Society San Francisco Bay Area. “Which is to come enjoy a special holiday standard as a family, without having all the stress and nervousness about having to have their child behave perfectly and instead the children can really be themselves. It’s just so great, and the kids love the music, and they love the dancing, and they are just so grateful.”

Following the performance, the response was overwhelmingly positive from audience members, staff, dancers, and orchestra members alike. “Thank you to the Autism Society [San Francisco Bay Area] and SF Ballet for doing this, it really made my heart happy!” said Joyce Cabrera who was in attendance with her family. “I’m so blown away by how the whole event was catered to families like ours, I feel so loved, included, cared for and seen! This event is truly the gold standard for inclusive events…Thank you for showing us that Ballet is for everyone.”

Given the success of the inaugural Sensory Friendly Nutcracker performance, SF Ballet plans to make it an annual event and to continue expanding its program offerings for neurodivergent audiences through additional programming throughout the season. Next up, on Sunday April 2, 2023, is an interactive Sensory Friendly Dance-Along workshop in conjunction with Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella©. More information about upcoming Sensory Friendly programs can be found at sfballet.org/sensory-friendly-programs.

Support for the Sensory Friendly Performance of Nutcracker was generously provided by Goldman Sachs Gives, John Garfinkle, Ian Reinhard and Myra Reinhard Family Foundation, Brook Hartzell and Tad Freese, Cheryl and Bruce Kiddoo, Alison Mauzé, and Lorraine C. Gilmore in honor of CJ Gray and the Barrett family; and from Sarah, Jesse, Allison, and Alex in honor of Betsy Eisenhardt. We are grateful to everyone who has contributed to making this dream a reality.

Patrons enjoy SF Ballet’s Sensory Friendly Performance of Nutcracker // © Lindsey Rallo