If you ask the average American about the last time they went to the theater to see a ballet, they may have to think for a while before they answer. According to Matthew Reinschmidt, who co-owns ballet school Ballet North in Gladstone with his wife, Laura, most Americans just don’t think to take their families to the ballet anymore.
Matthew worries about the longevity of the art of ballet in American culture. You can re-watch a movie from home, or listen to an orchestra on your home speakers, or even sing along to a Broadway musical on Spotify, but you can’t just watch a ballet on demand. And most parents don’t think to take their children to classical performances like ballet, meaning many children are not exposed to the art and therefore may never see a performance in person.
“Back in the day, the theater was the TV and Netflix and Roku,” says Matthew. “You had to go to the theater to see anything. And that’s a lot different nowadays. It’s hard to get into ballet unless you go to a theater.”
This is why Matthew and Laura have had their students at Ballet North perform the Nutcracker at elementary schools all over the Northland for over 30 years. Ballet North has been taking the Nutcracker on the road since 1987 (with the sole exception of 2020) — a massive undertaking with stagehands, lighting, set pieces, sound and expensive costumes — all for the sake of educating children about an art he and his wife care so deeply about.
“We bring it to their kids when they’re in an educational setting and we talk to them about it,” says Matthew of the school tour. “There’s some learning that goes along with it. What is it about? What is this ballet stuff trying to do? Then they get a good arts experience. That was the original goal — to get it in front of those who otherwise might not engage with it. That helps that art form stay current, relevant, known. We were trying to do something about that.”
Currently, Ballet North gets support from The Missouri Arts Council and The Arts Council of Kansas City, the latter of which directly supports the school tour. Matthew says that when they started doing the tour back in the 80s, it was part of a more considerable effort all over America to re-introduce the art form to people to keep it alive.
“For all of us that were in it, we were really trying to do something about it,” says Matthew about the decline of interest in ballet. “There were efforts, mostly on the coasts, to go out to schools and show people what it is. I’ve never met an audience that didn’t like ballet. Everybody likes this stuff when they see it correctly.”
Matthew knows firsthand about the stigma of ballet, as a man in an art form that is not seen in American culture as something as athletic and masculine as traditional sports. But Matthew, built like a boulder and with a rockhard handshake, is nothing short of an athlete and hopes to inspire kids out there on Ballet North’s school tour to get interested in ballet with their Nutcracker performance.
“They get the stereotypes so easily,” says Matthew of schoolchildren. “For me, personally, my biggest beef was for years and years and years was [the idea] that men don’t do ballet. I was like, are you nuts? Because this is wicked hard to do. I [could] outrun every person in my school.”
The Nutcracker is one of those ubiquitous holiday traditions. Even a person who has very little interest in ballet may go see a Nutcracker performance or at least listen to a recording of “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” in December. When asked if ballet companies ever get tired of performing the Nutcracker year after year during the holiday season, Matthew likens the show to a rockstar playing their biggest hit every time they perform.
“With ‘Nutcracker,’ there’s such a consciousness to the thing,” says Matthew. “I think if every ballet was like that, it wouldn’t be good. It’s fun for everyone to do. And maybe that’s part of why it’s so successful. Everyone knows what they’re getting into. It’s kind of thrilling to go out there and make it good.”
Matthew and Laura’s ballet company takes “The Nutcracker” to six schools over the course of the holiday season. Their company starts practicing in September, and they mostly perform the second act (the first act of “The Nutcracker” features more acting, while the second act is more of the ballet). The show is 45 minutes long, and the company will perform two shows at each school, rotating the dancers into different roles so they aren’t wearing themselves out doing the same dance twice in a row.
“When people see it done correctly and for real, they’re like, ‘That’s wonderful, that’s great stuff,’” says Matthew. “We’re trying to fight off the wrong notions about it. And it’s continuing that. If you don’t try to keep it out there, show them what the art form actually is, [it can] perpetuate itself. You don’t see a ballet broadcast out there in digital media. You have to go to a theater to see it. Ballet, if you don’t catch it in the theater, you don’t catch it at all.”
So Ballet North will make sure to bring ballet right to the kids. After all, it’s unlikely that Ballet North would have kept up their “Nutcracker” tradition for over three decades if both the ballet company and the audience didn’t love the performance.
If you want to see Ballet North’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” this December, you can see a performance at their studio in Gladstone on Dec. 17th, with possible additional shows on Dec. 10th. You can reserve a spot to see the performance at balletnorth.com