Each September, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet holds open auditions to cast the large corps of youth dancers that perform in the company’s annual production of The Nutcracker. During a three-hour vetting session in Joffrey Tower on Randolph Street, young hopefuls gather, hoping to land a coveted role in Tchaikovsky’s iconic Christmas ballet.
Dancers lucky enough to be cast attend months of evening and weekend rehearsals, including multiple daytime dress rehearsals during Production Week. This year, two casts of 87 young dancers are alternating 34 evening and matinee shows between December 1 and December 30 in the Joffrey’s Auditorium Theatre.
“Working with the Children’s Cast is a long process that starts in September. It’s wonderful to see their progress over the months and their excitement when they get to work with the company,” said Joffrey Ballet Master Suzanne Lopez. “I’m very proud of the kids this year, and their performances so far have been wonderful.”
For 12-year old Glenview resident Colleen Underriner, being cast as a soldier and nutcracker in this year’s production of The Nutcracker was a reward for years of dedicated work. A 6th grader at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH), Colleen juggles school and homework with as many as 20 hours a week of dance training at the Dance & Music Academy (DMA) in Glenview.
Underriner’s mother, Kathleen, recalls Colleen’s first experience performing as a 4-year-old with the Wilmette Children’s Theatre.
“She loved being up there from day one,” said Kathleen. “She would cry when I tried to pull her off stage.”
Over the years, dance took on an increasingly important role in Colleen’s life. When her father, Richard, passed away in January 2013 from cancer, it was dance that helped Colleen not only survive the devastating loss, but thrive in spite of it.
“The only thing harder than watching your husband die is seeing your 6-year-old daughter say goodbye to her father,” said Kathleen, who later sold the family’s home in Evanston and moved to a townhouse in The Glen.
Finding the Dance & Music Academy was a lifeline for both mother and daughter. Inside the studio, said Kathleen, Colleen felt safe and welcome; DMA’s instructors became her second family.
“What Colleen needed more than anything at that time was love and nurturing,” said Kathleen. “Dance became the place where, despite all the changes in her life, she could be playful and pretend everything was ok.”
And while performing in The Nutcracker has been a privilege, Colleen’s participation in the Joffrey’s holiday production has also involved sacrifice. Instead of traveling to see their extended family in Iowa over Thanksgiving and Christmas, Kathleen and Colleen are tethered to Chicago over the holidays for Colleen’s performances. As a special treat, the duo will bunk down at Palmer House Hotel on nights when Colleen performs in the evening.
Glenview’s Dance & Music Academy has a solid success rate of placing young dancers in The Nutcracker and other professional productions. The studio currently has two students performing in Porchlight’s production of Billy Elliot. DMA Director Krissie Odegard Geye said the studio regularly holds a special class to instruct dancers in audition preparation – bringing in seasoned industry experts to help ambitious students like Colleen land professional dance gigs.
“Colleeen works so hard and is humble, kind and polite,” said Geye. “She’s an awesome representative of what our company does.”
The Joffrey’s traditional production of The Nutcracker, as conceived by its founder-choreographer Robert Joffrey, debuted in 1987 in New York and continued when the dance company relocated to Chicago in 1995. In 2016, under the direction of Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Joffrey’s The Nutcracker was restaged against a new backdrop: the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In this latest production, parts traditionally played by children have been reimagined; mice have morphed into rats, and sugar plum children are now walnuts on the run from little nutcracker soldiers.
As Kathleen watches Colleen dance each week on the Joffrey stage, she often reflects on how far the mother-daughter pair have come since their devastating loss five years ago.
“Richard was very proud of his little girl,” said Kathleen. “It makes me so happy to see her happy.”
For tickets to “The Nutcracker” at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, visit www.joffrey.org