Elmhurst dancer takes center stage at Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”
January 6, 2024
At first glance, Sheppard Littrell may seem like your average sixth grader.
He plays baseball (like many other middle school boys), he loves math (maybe not like many other middle school boys) and he’s a violinist in his school’s orchestra. Like every 12-year-old, he has to go to school and get his homework done on time. He’s in advanced classes at Sandburg Middle School, and his teachers know him to be a positive and hardworking student.
But Sheppard Littrell is not your average sixth grader.
The Elmhurst native spent much of December at the Lyric Opera House, where he performed a lead role in “The Nutcracker” with the Joffrey Ballet, known to be one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world.
“I’ve really wanted to do [The Nutcracker] for a long time. It’s really exciting,” Littrell said.
In a new take on the classic holiday ballet, Marie embarks on a magical journey in a dream, choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s famous score. Littrell performs center stage as Marie’s brother, Franz. After a competitive audition process and years of training, this is his third professional role with the Joffrey Ballet. He’s part of the Pre-Professional Division at the Joffrey Academy of Dance, where he trains four days a week with the best in the business.
He also trains and performs in Elmhurst at his home dance studio, DuPage Dance Academy. He started in a pre-ballet class there just before his fourth birthday. It’s a special place for him for two reasons: first, it’s where he grew to love dancing, and second, his mom, Angela D’Onofrio, has been teaching there for nearly 20 years. D’Onofrio started dancing at the academy in 1990, so this is a special bond she shares with her son; they grew to love this art form within the same four walls.
As a dance teacher, she recognizes his skill, lines, and physique – a genetic gift distinguishing him from other students. As a mom, she revels in his hard work, passion, and drive to perform the best he can. Seeing him perform at such a high level – at such a young age – is just the cherry on top.
“It’s been such a joy to see him do this, to get these opportunities. It’s been a lot of sacrifice for us to do this. But you know, we’re so thankful. When someone hands you something like this, you just have to say yes and enjoy. Enjoy the experience. So we really have been enjoying it,” she said.
Littrell began taking classes at the Joffrey at just five (almost six) years old. While D’Onofrio was dancing with a group at the Joffrey studios, she put him in a weekend class for boys; here, they got to jump around, learn some acrobatics, and dabble in a bit of ballet. He then entered their Children’s Division and was eventually invited to audition for the Pre-Professional Division. Littrell’s first professional production was in “Anna Karenina” as Anna’s son, Seryozha. In October, he performed in “Frankenstein,” where he portrayed William, Frankenstein’s younger brother. This was the pinnacle of his career so far, and it’s only the beginning.
“I love the physical challenges of class, learning new choreography, and especially performing. Feeling the audience cheer for you is the best feeling. My experience dancing as William in Frankenstein was the best experience of my life,” Littrell said.
Both D’Onofrio and Littrell recognize how special his passion is; the number of boys in this field is lacking. Littrell is happy to pave the way for others, and D’Onofrio is proud to have a son who is comfortable going against the grain.
“I love that he tells his friends at school that he dances, and he’s very proud of it,” D’Onofrio said. “I hope that it inspires other boys to think about dance and think that it’s cool to do ballet.”
Littrell doesn’t know what his future holds or what his goals are yet. For now, he’s having fun forming close friendships with the other dancers, developing his technique, and performing for thousands of people.
As for D’Onofrio, she’s happy to be in the front row cheering him on (and helping with a step here and there). She knows that while his talent is special, it’s his kindness that makes him stand out more than anything.
“I really feel that all of this wonderful success couldn’t have happened to a more deserving kid,” she said.