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
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
"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
"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
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