Introducing Ballet to Elementary School Students through Student Matinees

Each year, there’s a distinctive buzz in the Opera House as the auditorium fills with children for SF Ballet’s annual Student Matinee performances. Designed for school groups, Student Matinees, held twice a year, offer an introduction to classical and contemporary ballet to nearly 6,000 Bay Area K-12 students, many of them part of SF Ballet’s Dance in Schools and Communities (DISC) program. “We’re committed to filling a critical need for arts education in our community,” says Andrea Yannone, director of education and training at SF Ballet. “These Student Matinees are a great way to introduce children to the transformative power of creativity through the performing arts.”

 

“The ballet made me feel magical! I loved all of the music and dancing.” 
—Leonie, age 8

Student drawing after a SF Ballet Student Matinee

The 2019 Student Matinees feature excerpts from story ballets Don Quixote and The Sleeping Beauty, performed by professional SF Ballet dancers with accompaniment by the SF Ballet Orchestra, as well as a world premiere created for the SF Ballet School Trainees by choreographer Marc Brew. Brew is artistic director of AXIS Dance Company, which integrates dancers with and without physical disabilities. His new ballet quicksilver was created on and performed by SF Ballet School Trainees, the most advanced dancers at the School. “It was a real joy to work with the Trainees,” says Brew. “I wanted to open their mind to new possibilities. I was never exposed to anyone with a disability during my own training. The fact that I was in that studio with them, working with them, hopefully changed their perception of what a dancer is and what it means to be a dancer.”

“I was surprised the men were so strong.” —Sebastian, age 7

Host Madison Keesler with dancers from SF Ballet and an ASL interpreter at the January Student Matinee // © Chris Hardy

As part of both of the Student Matinee performances, students—who mainly range in age from about 7 to 12 years old—experience an open scene change to provide a peek behind-the-scenes to see what it takes to stage a ballet. SF Ballet dancer Madison Keesler is host of this year’s Student Matinees. At the January Don Quixote Student Matinee, she started by explaining the story and introducing the dancers playing the main characters. Between Act I and Act II, she asked students to cheer (loudly!) for the character that protagonist Kitri should marry: Gamache or Basilio (who received the lion’s share of the applause). Students also learned a short phrase of mime from the ballet and practiced it in their seat. Another highlight was watching how the stage crew changed the scenery between acts. “I really enjoyed showing us how they changed the scenes and it was surprising how large the stage was,” says Radka Pulliam, a SFUSD educator who attended with a group of students. “I loved how you went through the acts and told us tidbits of how they lived and performed. Having the dancer lead us through this journey was amazing and helped our students access the ballet.”

The 2019 Student Matinee of Don Quixote // © Chris Hardy

Performance day is just one part of the Student Matinee experience, which starts months prior with free professional development workshops for K-12 classroom teachers at SF Ballet.  In these workshops, teachers explore activities, lessons, and resources to share with students before and after the Student Matinee performance. All attending schools are supplied with a Study Guide, which includes activities—geared to state and national education standards—that challenge students to think about the performance and artistic process.

 

“My favorite part of the performance was when the cats went jump, jump, jump!”
 —America, age 7

Thamires Chuvas and Alexander Reneff-Olson in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty // © Erik Tomasson

Programming is designed with schoolchildren in mind—Student Matinees last 75 minutes and feature high energy performances with plenty of stagecraft. It’s a winning formula—at the Don Quixote matinee, the errant knight’s horse drew as many gasps of delight as did the ebullient dancing. The White Cat and Puss in Boots, who dance in The Sleeping Beauty, are perennial favorites. “The students who attend these performances have a great experience, and so do the dancers,” says Yannone. “Their enthusiasm and energy are contagious.”

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