A dancer's dream come true

Joffrey Ballet integrates commitment to children with disabilities with magic of the season


Lenna Silberman Scott

Short stuff: Spotlight

For many families around the Chicago area, The Nutcracker ballet is a holiday tradition. Little boys and girls watch sugarplum fairies dance across stage and their eyes widen with excitement as Clara's dream ballet unfolds. For many of those children it is the beginning of their own dream.

Emma Vogelmann is no exception.

"I saw the Nutcracker every year before Christmas. I loved it because I love ballet and I wished that I could do it," Emma, 12, says.

Yet her dreams were tempered with the reality that she has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that causes her voluntary muscles to fail and means she must use a wheelchair. So becoming a ballet dancer seem unattainable-until the Joffrey Ballet worked its magic.

Carla Graham-White, Joffrey's children's ballet master, explains that in 1997, 8-year-old Stephen Hiatt-Leonard of Evanston saw a Joffrey performance at Ravinia that used performers with disabilities. At the same performance, announcements about Nutcracker children's auditions were handed out. Stephen, who has cerebral palsy, assumed because the one performance had dancers with disabilities, the Nutcracker would use children with disabilities, she says.

When Stephen arrived at the audition, the Joffrey's artistic director decided to change the choreography of the opening party scene to include a dancer in a wheelchair. Each year since, the Joffrey has included as many as five wheelchair dancers in the ballet.

Emma auditioned the following year, becoming only the fourth wheelchair dancer to perform with the company in this ballet.

"I think it's a really big honor that they changed the whole first scene to allow a kid in a wheelchair," Emma says. "You never see people in wheelchairs in ballets. Being in a wheelchair you don't dance like a normal ballerina, it's just really special."

Her father, Jeff Vogelmann, says the experience has changed Emma's life.

Equally important to Emma, her parents and the Joffrey is that the wheelchair dancers are truly integrated into the performance. The dancers move her wheelchair around the stage as part of the overall choreography of the scene.

"It's not done in any condescending or 'feel sorry' sort of way," Jeff Vogelmann says. "It is really blended into the choreography and she's really involved, integrated into the scene. She loves the opportunity to do the same things that the other kids are doing."

Says Emma, "It's really cool to be a part of it but not stand out. ... I'm doing what everyone else is doing."

That includes rehearsals. The wheelchair dancers maintain the same schedule as all of the other child performers, including rehearsals almost every weekend in the fall and performances during November and December, including some weekday rehearsals. According to her parents, it is a major commitment, but one that is worth it.

"To be out there on the stage of the Auditorium Theatre is an opportunity of a lifetime," says Jeff Vogelmann.

The ballet also includes disabled children in its performances in Washington, D.C., and Detroit.

"I think that [audience members] should see that ballet doesn't have to be limited to just the professional dance company, you can include children in it and you can include children with disabilities," says Graham-White. "It adds to the performance and it adds to the depth of what it is about. It is a story about dreams, and it is a dream come true for these children to be able to perform."

Emma will have one more year with the Joffrey; dancers may participate only until eighth grade. But Emma says, that like Clara, she will enjoy the dream while it lasts.

The Joffrey Ballet's presentation of The Nutcracker runs from Dec. 8- 27. Tickets are priced between $25 and $100 and are on sale at the Auditorium Theatre Box Office, Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago, or through Ticketmaster.

Lenna Silberman Scott is a writer living in Buffalo Grove with her husband and two children.

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