Tiny dancers at the Joffrey

December 2, 2010
Chicago Tribune
Sid Smith


It's 9:30 a.m. Saturday, the day before Halloween, and the kids are already hard at work.

Not on trick-or-treat plans or putting last details on scary costumes, mind you. They're rehearsing, and for the Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker," a production that won't take its first bow for nearly six weeks. Halloween is already well into their marathon — rehearsals began almost a month earlier.

The floor is littered with stuffed animals some of the children brought as practice props for real ones they'll be given much later — call it Method Acting come to juvenile ballet — while the instructions, as the dancers move, come non-stop.

"You're supposed to walk here, not chasse," their coach, Katie Garwood complains loudly in the middle of a sequence, a clue that not just the mindset but the vocabulary here is exotic. Exhortations of the athletic field are also somewhat reversed. "Don't run like a track star," they're told, in an unmistakable putdown.
"Is this hard? It can be," admits Garwood, the Joffrey Ballet Academy production associate who's directing the 116 youngsters in "Nutcracker." The production plays Friday through Dec. 26 at the Auditorium Theatre. "I'm not sure how it is in sports, but I'd guess ballet can be even more structured. Time is spent on their clothing, on fittings, on keeping their hair a certain way. The standards are very high. Being in 'The Nutcracker' gives them a look at what it means to be a professional dancer, what life backstage is really like."

Some 200 contenders audition each fall to fill 116 spots, and they rehearse as much as twice a week until the production opens, a schedule that doesn't excuse them from their three or four weekly ballet classes. "It's a huge commitment for a child and everyone in the family," Charthel Arthur, Joffrey ballet master, says. "Certainly for the parents, and even for other family members who aren't in the production."

"I do my homework in the car," Boris Fedorov, 10, says of his schedule juggling school, rehearsals and ballet class. He chose dance himself, opting not to follow in the steps of his father, Vladimir, a professional figure skater before leaving Moscow. "I really enjoy moving my body, being free, doing whatever I want," Boris says of what drew him to dancing.

"Sure, the rehearsals are long, they're two hours, and it takes an hour to get there," says Antony Simonoff, 9. "You have to be disciplined. But it's good. You know you'll be proud and your parents will be proud that you're in 'The Nutcracker.'"

Fedorov and Simonoff agree the biggest challenge is recalling all of the steps and moves required to be on stage for 25 minutes. "The hardest part is just remembering everything specific to my scene and all those exact steps," Fedorov says. By comparison, notes Simonoff, making his Joffrey debut this season, "The longest stretch I've been on stage before this was only four minutes."

Logan Velasquez, 11, cites a more technical challenge. "The pirouettes," she says, "they're very hard. You have to do three or four, and it's challenging and frustrating when you can't get through as many as you'd like. And they have to look nice."

Does she worry about falling over during the spins in the pirouettes? "You have to suck your stomach in to have the right balance," she says. "That helps." She knows well the challenges: She lives in Peotone, some 45 miles south of the Joffrey's studios at Randolph and State Streets. "It's a commitment, no question," says her mother, Sherry, but then sums up the lure: "It's 'The Nutcracker.' It's the Joffrey. What an opportunity."

"It's fun, it's beyond fun," Logan herself concludes.

It can, on occasion, be hell. "A snow angel threw up on stage once in Iowa City," Arthur recalls. "She had the flu, but her parents had tickets that night, and she felt she just had to go on. At least she lasted all the way to the bow."

Velasquez and Fedorov, both in their second season, admitted to nerves only on opening night last year — and then relished the rest of the run. "You know thousands are watching, but you just don't think about it," Velasquez says. "You get over it."

And for all of it, the pay is … zero. A cynic might wonder if the "Nutcracker" is a bit of a racket, selling tickets to friends and relatives who don't attend ballet otherwise. "It wasn't conceived that way, but through the years it has become apparent, just talking to the children, how many people they draw, from ballet teachers, regular teachers, brothers, sisters and grandparents," Arthur says. "One kid told me, 'Seventy-five people are coming to see me tonight.'"

But there is magic, and not just in the ballet's story. "One thing that's neat is the effect the kids have on the pros," Garwood says. "I see them soften when the kids are around. The children bring such an innocence, such a desire to dance, that it reminds the adult dancers of how much they love this art, why they pursued it and how blessed they are to be doing it."

And something all parents know: extracurricular efforts, be they artistic or athletic, build character.

"It inspires a huge sense of responsibility," Arthur says. "I was artistic director of the Grand Rapids Ballet for a while, and children who'd been in our 'Nutcracker' years before, who didn't end up becoming dancers, came back and told me how important it was, not only in teaching them to love art, but in teaching them responsibility. Some became doctors and lawyers and told me their dance training helped them achieve that."