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Utah family finds new tradition in 'The Nutcracker,' beyond autism

Published December 12, 2011 10:22 am

Dance • Utah family finds a new tradition in "The Nutcracker," as ballet class takes their son beyond his autism.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's probably never been another dancer named Bubba listed on Ballet West's Gala program.

Blythe Stewart is pretty sure her 9-year-old son is the first one. He was named Zachary at birth, but insists on being called by his nickname.

That's one of the manifestations of Zachary Stewart's autism spectrum disorder — a learning disability that ballet class has had surprisingly positive effects on, says Cati Snarr, children's ballet mistress and "Nutcracker" rehearsal director.

Snarr recalls taking attendance the first day Bubba came to class. "I called out 'Zachary Stewart' and there were only two boys in the class," Snarr says. "One boy was already checked in, so I was pretty sure the other had to be Zachary." But Bubba looked around at the other children as if searching for Zachary Stewart, until someone clued her in. "It's been Bubba ever since."

The hyperfocus of autism • The Stewart family comfortably discusses the learning disability that affects their son, as well as some 3 million other Americans, and is thought to be four times more prevalent in boys than girls. The rate of autism seems higher in Utah than in other states, although researchers aren't sure why.

Bubba Stewart played one of the Sailor Boys at the party in opening weekend "Nutcracker" performances, while his brother, 14-year-old Jacob Stewart, landed the coveted role of the Nephew. The Stewarts are among the 258 child dancers who are part of the seven rotating casts in the holiday extravaganza.

Ballet West's "Nutcracker," originally choreographed in 1944 by the company's founder, Willam F. Christensen, is a tradition interwoven through generations of Utah families; in the hallways of the dance company a decade after his death, Christensen still is lovingly referred to as Mr. C.

Snarr's experience with learning issues gives her a special sensitivity in working with child dancers. "Children with such bright personalities bring something special to their performance," Snarr said. "Bubba is exactly what Mr. C. would have wanted in the part of the Sailor Boys — these characters were never meant to be model children headed for West Point."

Snarr's own hyperactive behavior probably landed her in ballet class as a child, and later, her son learned to manage his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder through the persistent practice of refocusing required in a ballet class.

Conversely, autism is often characterized by a hyperfocus on a specific topic or theme. That comes in handy during ballet class, where shutting out distractions is necessary to memorize a new series of steps every five to seven minutes.

Another kind of family tradition • Of course there's no magic bullet, as any parent whose child has a learning disability knows. The Stewarts started with public school, switching to Catholic school, then to a private individualized program, finally landing at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School with supportive services from Autism Behavior Treatment Center in Draper.

Ballet class is just one of the many parts to Bubba Stewart's ongoing success, yet it seems to be a place where many pieces fit together. Blythe Stewart explains it this way: "Jacob has severe asthma. And yesterday I was lecturing him about taking care of his body so he wouldn't have an asthma attack, and Jacob said, 'Why don't you yell at Bubba about this stuff?' and Bubba said: 'Because I'm not asthmatic, I'm autistic.' "

It was an easy call for the Stewarts when daughter Madison first wanted to attend Ballet West Academy classes. Jacob followed. "When Bubba wanted to try it, I kept putting it off, because I didn't want to set him up for failure," Blythe Stewart says. "But ballet class has taught him to self-regulate, it has given him a place to socialize, and it has pushed him to overcome some of his sensory issues."

From football to ballet • Jacob, who has the build of a quarterback, had spent six years playing football, and he was quite a good player, according to his dad, and sometimes coach, Paul Stewart. One day Jacob came home and told his parents that the ballet company's outreach-in-education program, I CAN DO, had been teaching dance at his school and asked if they would attend his performance.

Afterward, Ballet West Academy director Peter Christie talked to the Stewarts about Jacob's talent and athleticism and recommended the summer ballet program. For several months, Jacob attended football practice and ballet class until it got to be too much for the whole family.

"Paul and I were fulfilling our two-year obligation on the football board, and both boys were over at ballet class," Blythe Stewart said. "We told Jacob he had to decide between the two."

Jacob thought he should choose football to please his dad and was ready to give up ballet. But Paul Stewart told him: "Choose what makes you happy, and that will make me happy."

Paul Stewart doesn't pepper his stories with sports analogies or appear wistful for the pigskin when talking about his sons' and daughter's successes. He acknowledges the daily time-crunch of running as many as four children (his three, plus a friend whom Bubba has nicknamed Sissy) to ballet class and rehearsal five days a week. When asked if he likes ballet, he replies: "When the kids are in it, I do."

Jacob aspires to become a professional dancer and is dedicated enough to take classes all summer. Bubba looks up to his older brother and says he too would like to become a professional, "just not in the summer."

Onstage • Portraying the Nephew in "Nutcracker" is a very responsible part, which Jacob relishes. "I really like the feeling that everyone is counting on me," he says.

As for Bubba, he likes the lights onstage and the open space. In ballet class, he says, he can "make a mistake and just try it again." His part as one of the Sailor Boys is also a difficult part, with lots of memorization and direction-following.

"Bubba is so great when he knows the expectations," Snarr says. "If you're really clear about expectations, he is on a quest to meet them."

In talking about ballet, Blythe Stewart makes a mental checklist, comparing the screaming and put-downs that are often an accepted part of organized sports. "What kid wouldn't want to go where their teachers appreciate them, where they're given opportunities to improve, and where their role models consistently tell them what a great job they're doing?"

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Ballet West's 'The Nutcracker'

In its sixth decade, Ballet West's "Nutcracker" is faster-paced and fresher than ever, opined Tribune reviewer Celia R. Baker, who called it "a holiday must-see." Read her review at http://bit.ly/uPQVNy.

When • Through Dec. 31 (no shows Sundays and selected Mondays and Tuesdays); otherwise, nightly at 7, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Dec. 24 and 26. (Check balletwest.org for additional matinees.)

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $19-$75 (plus service fees) at 801-255-ARTS or arttix.org

Running time • Two hours, including 20-minute intermission

More • Sugar Plum Parties, $5, will be held after matinees (except Dec. 24 and 31). "Nutty Nutcracker" performances will be Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 31 at 2 p.m., which feature whimsical surprises tucked into the traditional choreography.