For 'Nutcracker,' the Joffrey's own Mother Ginger grooms her 118 kids

November 27, 2013
Chicago Tribune
Laura Molzahn


"Let's go over the pas de chat," says the lanky adult to a studio full of little girls. "I mean, 'the pas de mouse.'"

Katie Garwood Kirwan, the kids' rehearsal director for the Joffrey's "The Nutcracker," is going over the first-act entrance of the mice, leading into the battle scene. In a matter of minutes, she drills these 8- to 14-year-olds on the counts, impersonates a toy soldier with a pop gun, advises on how the mice can avoid collisions, and barks, "Don't mark the arms on the pounce — remember, you're attacking!"

Part comedian, part ballet taskmaster, part theater director, and part cheerleader/substitute mom, Kirwan keeps up a steady stream of questions, feedback, mime and jokes throughout the 90-minute evening rehearsal. "The way I am, I use my whole self," she says afterward. "Sometimes I'm tired by the end of the day. But as soon as I get in there and start working with the kids, my energy comes up out of nowhere. Children have such life, I kind of come alive with them."

The 18 girls at this rehearsal — all together the Joffrey productions employ 118 children, divided into the "red" and "green" casts — vary widely in their physical and emotional development as well as in their personalities. Sixteen of them play both mice and the second-act Polichinelles, who pop out from under Mother Ginger's skirt, while two of the littlest are Gingerbread Dolls.

Before rehearsal, some of the older performers talk a little about their roles. Five-year veteran Rachel Newton, 13, of Frankfort, explains that the "Polis" perform some of the most challenging children's choreography. "It has to be precise or it looks like a mess," she says. Carol Dilts, also 13, of Miller Beach, Ind., elaborates: "You have to be really articulate with your feet and the way you position your body. You have to be right in line with the person in front of you." On the other hand, they do get to be "clowned up" in turquoise eye shadow.

Watching rehearsal makes the challenges obvious. For one thing, there's a lot of traffic control involved in getting the Polis on stage, then out from under the Mother Ginger skirt — and puppeteer Francis "Frank" Kane and his giant costume aren't present. The Polis must practice crouching in the proper formation beneath a skirt they can only imagine, then move the invisible fabric aside to scoot out, backward, one by one.

Which hand do they use? "I've never actually exited the skirt," Kirwan tells them thoughtfully. "But I think the left hand would be best." To find center stage for their entrances, she advises them to look at Frank, also underneath the gown. "He's the center — but you can't be right in the middle! Frank doesn't like it when you get in his face." She adds, with what seems amazing forethought, "When you're under there, it gets a little exciting. You need to be able to calm yourself down."

In her role as theater coach, Kirwan gives the kids a sense of their characters' motivations and stage presence. A Gingerbread Doll must not only speed-shuffle across the stage but look delighted to be alone out there. At one point Kirwan pulls a long face to make the dancers laugh at their own I-am-making-art "ballet faces." (Later, she notes that the shift from classroom to stage can be a big jump.) To get them to play to the balcony in the cavernous Auditorium Theatre, she suggests they pretend to be saying, "Hi, Mom!"

Kirwan turns into a movement coach for the demands of the "kick line," where the Polis must bend over, holding each other's waists, and lift flexed legs and feet, alternating sides. "How far over are you supposed to be?" she asks. "Yes, 90! See how everyone gets higher and higher as you go along? How do you keep your back straight? How do you get your leg up? The muscles in the core, absolutely!"

The eagle-eyed Kirwan knows, too, how to soften her many admonishments. When one child stops dancing and Kirwan asks her why, she says her bun fell out. "Oh no!" says Kirwan with instant sympathy. Then: "Is it ready now?" After one of the Gingerbread Doll solos, Kirwan says sotto voce to the little girl, "It's OK. You're just learning it."

Kirwan began teaching dance even before she graduated from college and long before she arrived in Chicago to join the Joffrey Academy of Dance in 2009. "I'm just drawn to children," she says. "You have to be strict, but especially with the tiny ones, you have to figure out what motivates them and not defeat them. It's a very tricky balance."

Beginning in 2009, Kirwan assisted Charthel Arthur with the kids' casts, then Willy Shives in the year after Arthur left. This is Kirwan's first "Nutcracker" on her own, assisted by retired Joffrey dancer Michael Smith, who's a "big asset," she says. "He was Drosselmeyer many years running, and he's really familiar with how the parents and Drosselmeyer interact with the kids in the party scene, one of the most complicated scenes to set."

Though the children's rehearsals started in late September, no dancer — child or professional — gets much time on the Auditorium stage before opening night, Dec. 6. But that prepares the kids, Kirwan says, for when they get older: "You have very limited time onstage beforehand, then you just have to do it." After the Joffrey professionals get back from their Kennedy Center "Nutcracker" run, they join the children, for the first time, in a studio rehearsal. Then one children's cast does the tech rehearsal; the other, the dress rehearsal. "One cast doesn't even do it in their costumes until the show," says Kirwan. "Sometimes they get really nervous about that, but they always get through it and realize they can do more than they think they can."

Remarkably, Kirwan has never seen "big problems" on stage. "By the time they get there," she says, "I've got them pretty well rehearsed."

Now getting her master's in occupational therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Kirwan says that, as part of her training, she's thought a lot about what motivates different people. Rehearsing the kids, she asks them to work with their peers, observing and correcting each other, and to write down their thoughts in their handout notebooks between times in the studio.

"The process for the children has so many benefits," Kirwan says. "They're learning how to participate in a professional organization, how to respect each other, how to push themselves. Some have trouble with it, but eventually they realize what a joy it is to work hard and have a good outcome."

Another big motivator, of course: these youngsters' dreams of dancing professionally. Mixing with the Joffrey's accomplished performers is huge. "The dancers from the company are so encouraging," Kirwan says. "The children's eyes light up when someone in a beautiful tutu comes over and wants to know who they are. They also get to see how the dancers encourage each other, how they push toward perfection. It gives them the kind of role models, the heroes, that are sometimes hard to find."

Laura Molzahn is a Tribune special contributor; she can be reached at ljmolzahn [at] gmail [dot] com

'The Nutcracker'

When: Friday through Dec. 28

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway

Tickets: $31-$132 at 800-982-2787 or