Joffrey Ballet’s 25th ‘Nutcracker’: Visions of sugar plums dance in local kids’ heads

December 5, 2012
Winnetka Sun Times
Dorothy Andries

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Sugar plums really dance and flowers waltz. A wooden toy turns into a handsome soldier and there really are angels in the snow.

Each year scores of area children take part in the magic of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s holiday production of “The Nutcracker,” now marking its 25th year.

Two sisters, Sophie and Phoebe Elliot of Winnetka, are among those chosen to dance on the stage of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.

It is their first appearance with the Joffrey, though not with the fabled ballet, danced to music by Tchaikovsky, which premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in December 1892.

When the Elliots lived in Iowa both girls were Angels with a touring company which came to their town.

“They had three weeks to learn their parts then,” said their mother, Susan Elliot. “They’ve been rehearsing much longer for this production.”

In late September and throughout October rehearsals were once a week at the Joffrey Tower. As opening night approached, however, things heated up with rehearsals Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. “We pretty much camp out all day on the weekends,” said Susan, who studied ballet herself from age three to 11.

Sophie, 11, who attends the Skokie School, has the role of a Party Girl in the opening scene. “We just had our fittings,” she said with a smile. “My costume is blue and my new ballet shoes are, too. It’s my favorite color.”

Phoebe, 9, who attends Hubbard Woods school, is the Chinese Girl Doll. She costume is the traditional Chinese red, yellow and orange.

Both are enrolled in the Joffrey Academy and take their instruction seriously. But they also have to keep up with their academic lessons and frequently find themselves doing homework in the car.

Mia Rehwalt of Evanston is a Soldier, part of the uniformed troops who in the first act challenge the sneaky gray mice who invade after the Christmas party is over. This is her second year in “The Nutcracker.”

In addition to studying with Wendy Parks at A Fairytale Ballet in Evanston, Mia also is a gymnast. In 2010, she danced in Ballet Entre Nous’ production of “The Nutcracker” in the Winnetka Community House.

The 11-year-old admits that she has a lot going on in her life as a fifth grader at Kingsley Elementary School in Evanston. “I have homework to do, I have friends at school. I have gymnastics,” she said, “but I never want to give up my ballet lessons.”

The young dancer spoke of a book which has inspired her, “It’s the graphic novel To Dance,” she explained. “The girl in the book loves the ballet, but does not become a a professional dancer. But later she started taking lessons again and at the end of the book she says, ‘Dancing fills a space in me.’”

“That line always brings tears to my eyes,” said her mother Hallie Rehwalt, who was a dance major in college and after a 30 year break has herself resumed ballet lessons.

She has also volunteered to be a parent coordinator for “The Nutcracker.” “There are eight parents staffing the dressing rooms,” she said. “So I go around and see what they need. Make sure everyone is in the right place.”

Right now, Mia certainly finds herself in the right place. “Mr. Willy (Shives, ballet master for the children’s cast) is really pushing me to do better,” she said, with obvious pride, “and I like it.

“When I am at the Joffrey, walking through the halls, I don’t want to leave,” she continued. “I really want to get into the pre-professional program there.”

Analise Hagnell of Lake Bluff will be a doll dressed as Punch, with furry clown-like pom-pons on the front of her costume.

Her two older sisters, Gianna and Mia, both danced in the Joffrey production several years ago. And in 2009 and 2010, all three Hagnell girls danced in the Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker” during its run at the Rosemont Theatre.

So it was no surprise when Analise’s mother Laura Hagnell revealed that she also had danced in “The Nutcracker.” “I was a Nurse or Nanny in the opening party scene with the Indianapolis Ballet’s production of ‘The Nutcracker,’” she said. “So it has always been part of own lives.”

Analise, 9, is a fourth grader at Rondout Elementary School in Lake Forest and studies dance at LoMastro Performing Arts in Lake Forest and Extensions Dance Company in Chicago.

Like the other mothers, Laura Hagnell has been driving her daughter back and forth to rehearsals since September. “I do my homework in the car,” Analise said, and then added, “when I remember to bring it with me.”

“I like the car time,” Laura said. “It gives us time to talk.”

The young dancers tried to put into words the reasons why people should attend “The Nutcracker” at the Joffrey this holiday season.

“I’ll tell my friends to come because they know somebody in it — me,” said Phoebe.

“Because it has kids in it and it’s more fun than a regular ballet,” Sophie added.

“It’s not just ballet,” said Mia. “It’s a story, and it takes you to all different countries — China, Arabia.”

“Maybe if kids come to a performance they’ll want to start dancing,” Analise declared. “Besides, it’s a really great show.”