"Every time I do it, it gets easier," said veteran Joffrey Ballet dancer Derrick Agnoletti, 31, referring to dancing the beloved ballet The Nutcracker playing through Dec. 27 at The Auditorium Theater. "I would never say it is easy, but you learn to pace yourself and take things one at a time."
Fellow dancer Michael Smith, 30, agreed. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Robert Joffrey's version of the holiday classic, which was given the Goldstar National Nutcracker Award (or "Nutty") in 2011 as the "Best Loved Nutcracker" in the U.S.
This year also marks milestones for Agnoletti and Smith, who have been dancing in Joffrey's Nutcracker for 10 and 14 years, respectively. Between the two, they've performed almost every part aside from the Sugar Plum Fairy. They are enjoying being the "older" dancers, passing down information and traditions they've learned over the years. Good friends inside the studio and out, they consider each other and their fellow Joffrey dancers, past and present, family.
"You're drawn to certain people and you help them through," Smith said. "This career is so short, if you can give a little advice to help in any way, it makes the process of being in this field much easier." Smith "schooled" Agnoletti when he first joined the company. "Back in the day, the older dancers would school you," he said. "We looked up to them, because when you saw them on stage, they were so professional."
Both dancers say it isn't hard to keep performances fresh, even after dancing them for years in a row. Agnoletti said, "I learned from the older generation how to make up stories. They always had a story behind everything they did."
Smith plays off the people around him to keep things fresh, while actively pushing himself for new ideas. "There is always something different or another way to approach it," he said. "It's kind of like being on autopilot, but the more you're comfortable within a role, the more you can live in it. Sure you have to be stiff as a soldier, but there are moments artistically you can play with and explore."
To celebrate the silver anniversary, the company is going retro by restoring pieces of the original 1987 choreography by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino that had been altered over the years. What makes this iteration unique is it is set in America instead of Europe, the use of men in traditionally all-female corps dances and the way the characters are thread throughout the entire ballet. "There is something about its raw quality," Smith said. "The story is told in this pop-up book kind of way and the way things feed through the entire ballet like how the kids get the toys in the beginning, then the toys fight in the battle and carry on in the Act II divertissements, it stays true to the puzzle of all of it."
Another notable difference in Joffrey's Nutcracker is the way the ballet ends. SPOILER ALERT: Where most versions have Clara (a.k.a the girl who gets the nutcracker) waking up from her dream safe at home, this one has her floating away in a hot-air balloon. "To me it has a very American, Wizard of Oz feel," said Smith. "If you know the story, it's already implied that it's a dream. It doesn't need to be literal. It's more magical if she floats away. That's kind of what Joffrey and Arpino were about. Keeping the magic always going even outside the theater."
Agnoletti saw that magic first hand for the first time earlier this month while the company was on tour in Ohio. "I'd never seen it all the way through, but I had a night off," he said. "I liked seeing Mr. Arpino's choreography. I love the Snow Scene. The Arpino style is brought into it so well, because it's icy and sharp and fast. You have to know how to control your body and you have to make it look clean. When I'm in it, I try my best to keep it at the level that he trained us to do."
Arpino, affectionately known as Mr. A., is a presence still felt by the older dancers, especially during Nutcracker season. "There's a small group of us that were connected with Mr. A., that got to be in the studio and work with him. It's cool to see Arpino-isms being put into other people," said Smith. "It's interesting to be in a role where you are the one passing down the information."
The Joffrey Ballet presents Robert Joffrey's The Nutcracker at The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., through Dec. 27. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$132; call 800-982-2787 or visit www.ticketmaster.com .
Other holiday shows:
Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring The Rockkettes at the Akoo Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont, Friday, Dec. 14—Sunday, Dec. 31, performance times vary. Tickets are $30-$89; call 800-745-3000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com .
Chicago Tap Theatre presents Tidings of Tap! at the University of Illinois at Chicago Theater, 1044 W. Harrison St., Friday-Saturday, Dec. 14-15, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15-$35; call 773-655-1175 or visit www.chicagotaptheatre.com .
Ruth Page Civic Ballet's The Nutcracker will be performed at the James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts at the College of Lake County, 19351 W. Washington St., Grayslake, Saturday, Dec. 15, at 1 and 5 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 16 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10-$25; call 847-543-2300 or visit www.clcillinois.edu/tickets.
Salt Creek Ballet presents The Nutcracker at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Saturday, Dec. 15, at 1 and 5 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $24.50-$39.50; call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northshorecenter.org .
Ballet Chicago's The Nutcracker at The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 16 at 2:30 p.m., as well as Friday, Dec. 21 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 22 at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 23 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $26-$37; call 773-935-6875 or visit www.athenaeumtheatre.org .