Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'Nutcracker' tradition translated for visually impaired

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Glittering costumes. Tchaikovsky's lush, sweeping score. Ballerinas, fairylike and flittering, and scampering children costumed as mice.

It's the magic of "The Nutcracker," Ballet Austin's holiday spectacle, which opens Saturday at the Long Center. Indeed, since it was popularized in the mid-1950s, "The Nutcracker" has become a staple of holiday entertainment across the country.

But for the visually impaired, much of the proverbial "Nutcracker" magic is inaccessible. Yes, the music tells part of the story of Clara and her dreams of the Nutcracker Prince. But the sparkling visuals and intricate ballet steps tell even more.

This year, working with the disabilities access provider VSA arts of Texas, Ballet Austin will offer live audio description for two of its 12 "Nutcracker" performances. VSA stands for "Vision, Stength, Access Arts for All."

"Blindness is about access to information," said Celia Hughes, executive director of VSA Texas, which is a member of an international network of organizations affiliated with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. "For those of us who are sighted, we see so much of the information that adds to a fuller understanding and experience of the world — and of the arts."

Several years ago, Ballet Austin began offering audio description during a free "Nutcracker" performance for students from the Texas School for the Blind. The services were offered at one regular performance beginning three years ago. About a couple of dozen people have used the service each year.

As word of the service spread, Ballet Austin decided to add a second show. Patrons who are visually impaired will be able to hear the description at shows on Dec. 12 and Dec. 20.

The Long Center has 50 wireless headsets, which are about the size of an iPod. They are provided free.

For arts patrons with visual impairment, verbal descriptions of the language-less ballet enrich the aesthetic experience.

"You have a deeper appreciation of the piece," said Audley Blackburn, who is blind. "Before, I could listen to the music (of "The Nutcracker"), which is wonderful, but you're really missing a big part of the ballet if you can't see it."

Blackburn added that the issue of providing audio description went beyond just a personal aesthetic experience.

"It's a matter of cultural equality, too," he said. "I can be a part of the greater cultural community. I can talk about seeing 'The Nutcracker' along with everyone else who's talking about having seen it."

Ballet Austin isn't alone in teaming with VSA Texas to offer audio description to Austin audiences. Austin Lyric Opera, Zach Theatre, the Paramount Theatre and other performing arts groups have enlisted audio description services.

VSA Texas has also described touring productions that come to town, such as Cirque du Soleil and, most recently, the Broadway musical "Wicked."

Blackburn, 63, who fell in love with theater when he attended his first Shakespeare play as a child in Dallas, attends as many performing arts events as possible with his wife, Kathy, who is also blind.

"But sometimes if they don't offer audio description, we have to give away our tickets," he said.

Both the Blackburns have served on the board of VSA Texas. The nonprofit organization has an annual budget of $400,000 and is the only such group in the country that provides live audio description for first-run movies, Hughes said.

She spent about 30 hours preparing notes to describe the fanciful action in "Kung Fu Panda," she said.

VSA Texas recruits and trains the volunteer group that provides the descriptions and coordinates services for as many arts events as possible. Recently, VSA Texas began asking arts groups to pay a $75 stipend for describers.

As a highly visual art form, dance is particularly challenging to describe.

Kathryn Judge of Austin described "The Nutcracker" last year and will do so again this year. "It's important to bring in all the emotions and color of what is happening on stage, not just the technical description," she said.

Like other volunteers from VSA Texas, Judge uses no script and narrates the performance live. She previews a production to take basic notes. But once she's in the sound booth behind the last row of seats at the Long Center, it's show time.

Having studied dance in college, Judge is keen on finding creative ways to describe ballet's technical steps to a nonvisual audience.

"I try to use allegories," she said. "I might say something like 'a dancer is fluttering as if she's a bird shaking dew off her wings' or 'she is opening her arms as if she is a blooming flower.' "

During "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," Judge, who has narrated several other Ballet Austin productions, might describe the corps of fluttering ballerinas in red sparkling tutus as "lifting their arms gracefully as if they're blowing in the wind."

"The challenge is to describe the whole experience of what's happening onstage," Judge said.

The experience, that is, that makes "Nutcracker" magic.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699