Just because you don’t walk doesn’t mean you can’t fly.

On Dec. 9-10 at the Lila Cockrell Theatre, Imogen Crandall will take the stage as one of 10 disabled performers with the Children’s Ballet of San Antonio for its annual production of The Children’s Nutcracker.

The 12-year-old’s wheelchair will be festooned with flowing butterfly wings and rolled with grace and poise by 20-year-old Kyndall Lock in the role of the Ice Queen. Though Imogen is mostly nonverbal, a result of Rett syndrome, Lock says her joy is evident.

“She’s so sweet,” Lock said. “And I can tell she enjoys what she’s doing.”

Fully inclusive

Children’s Ballet founder and artistic director Vanessa Bessler incorporates disabled performers in productions as fully integrated members of the cast.

“We take each of those artists and figure out what are their strengths, what are their talents, and how we can use that to enhance and highlight the productions,” she said.

Bessler said their participation brings “more joy and more magic” to the performances, whether or not audience members are aware of their disabilities. 

“Everybody can bring something special to the production regardless of their skill levels, or their differences. Everybody’s different,” she said. “It’s important for me that our productions are fully inclusive, all abilities, all demographics, all shapes, colors and sizes.”

Bessler is motivated in part by understanding the privilege she enjoyed as a full scholarship student at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, and as principal dancer with the National Ballet of Panama. 

She recognizes how rare those opportunities are and wants others to be able to experience the pride, exuberance and appreciation she felt onstage. 

“When you see them as the lights hit them, they feel the same emotions that I felt when I was a dancer,” Bessler said. “That’s very important for us, that they are having the same experiences and the same emotions and the same connection with the audience.”

For Imogen’s father, Cameron Crandall, the goal is straightforward. “I see it as an opportunity for my daughter to go participate in a ballet like any other 12-year-old daughter would. That’s the beginning and end of it,” he said. “I don’t try to overanalyze it, because otherwise, I’m characterizing my daughter’s life solely through the lens of Rett syndrome, and not through her and her personality, her interests, her dreams, her desires.” He said his goal is for people to see Imogen for who she is, rather than as a person with Rett syndrome.

Kydall Lock, left, with Imogen Crandall
Kydall Lock, left, with Imogen Crandall. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A game changer

Not every experience is as welcoming as the Children’s Ballet. Shirley Cabellos said her daughter Addison loves to dance, but another dance class didn’t want to work with her. Addison has Down syndrome, with challenges including tracheal stenosis silent aspiration, and a heart defect that will require surgery. 

“Honestly, for parents like us it’s hard because your heart gets broken when someone else turns you away,” Cabellos said.

The Children’s Ballet “has been a game changer” for mother and daughter, Cabellos said. “She loves it. She loves being a part of the dance. I think it’s a wonderful thing they’re doing.”

Each dancer in the company is charged with looking after the disabled artists to help them participate, be in place for their cues, and shine during their onstage moments.

During a recent rehearsal, the rambunctious Addison opted to absorb herself with costumed dolls used as stage props rather than take her place for the family sleigh ride. Dancer Jaida Soleman is paired with Addison and patiently facilitated her play.

“She’s for sure a free spirit. I really love her. She’s amazing,” Soleman said. 

Addison Diaz Caballero with Jaida Soleman
Addison Diaz Caballero, left, with Jaida Soleman. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bessler said that Soleman placed second in a regional ballet competition and would be the only San Antonian heading to Tampa, Florida, in April for the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix.

For now, though, Bessler said, “She is dancing Clara this year in the performance and she is responsible to make sure that [Addison] has her stellar moment as well.” 

Living a dream

Parents say their children benefit by being drawn out of their shells, feel pride in performing tasks, and appreciate the feeling of inclusion.

Laura Vela’s 10-year-old daughter Olivia has a chromosome microdeletion syndrome that causes developmental delays and cognitive disability, but nothing stands in the way of her love for The Nutcracker, which she has watched on television since she was 4, and “not just at Christmas,” Vela said. 

In The Children’s Nutcracker, Olivia will play the roles of a mini-flower and a butterfly, costumed in a purple and white tutu with a bejeweled tiara and lifted by company dancer William Bessler to portray her in flight. 

 “This is her living out a dream,” Vela said.

Olivia Vela
Olivia Vela. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Jennifer Butanda, mother of 15-year-old Leslie, echoed a similar sentiment on behalf of her daughter. With Down syndrome, Leslie watched her elder sister Lia perform in The Nutcracker in their hometown of Brownsville but was not afforded a similar opportunity. When they moved to San Antonio and found the Children’s Ballet, both daughters and son Nelson were able to participate.

“Leslie just felt so supported and so accepted in the ballet community, and performing with her two siblings was just a dream come true for her,” Butanda said. 

The experience is valuable for all involved, Butanda said, from disabled performers and backstage parents to audience members.

“From the time that she’s born, you hear a lot of ‘nos,’” she said. “From the moment they brought her to me at the hospital, the doctor is saying, ‘She won’t be able to do this, she might not do this, we don’t know her capacity’ … a lot of limitations that they put on her right from birth without even knowing what she’ll be capable of later. But through therapies, and through opportunities like Ms. Bessler’s, they are able to participate and engage with other children, their peers of their age, and they can do it, and they want to do it. So they try even harder.”

Leslie Butanda, 15, will be performing with the Children’s Ballet of San Antonio during the annual performance of The Children’s Nutcracker. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for the San Antonio Report

Most important, Bessler treats them as equals, Butanda said. “She does not shy away. She gives them lead roles. … They’re not just in the background, she highlights them so that they can shine onstage.”

For Cabellos, it’s important for her daughter “to be included,” she said. “To be included in what life has to offer, you know? Dream big.”

Tickets for The Children’s Nutcracker are available for 7 p.m. performances Dec. 9 and Dec. 10 and a Sunday 2 p.m. matinee. A portion of the proceeds funds scholarships that allow disabled artists to participate in the Children’s Ballet’s holiday and spring performances. 

On Friday, the Children’s Ballet of San Antonio will begin offering a free weekly Zumba class for disabled students taught by Samantha Gonzalez, an instructor with Down syndrome. Registration is available through the Dance Center of San Antonio, online or by phone at 210-462-7660.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...