Larke Johnson in rehearsal. Photo courtesy The Joffrey Ballet

The Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker Has a New Role for Dancers With Disabilities

Marie and Franz have a new guest at their Christmas Eve party this year. Emma Lookatch and Larke Johnson, both dancers in the Adaptive Dance Program at Joffrey Academy of Dance: Official School of The Joffrey Ballet, are alternating in the new role of Worker Girl. It is a permanent part created specifically for students with disabilities in Christopher Wheeldon's version of The Nutcracker at The Joffrey Ballet.


Wheeldon's production, which premiered in 2016, is set in Chicago in 1892 right before the first World's Fair. The part of Worker Girl is included in Act I, during the party scene. The character is part of the community of immigrant families living near the fairgrounds.

Lookatch and Johnson perform the part alongside Joffrey Ballet company members and 100 other students from the Joffrey Academy and other local studios that make up the children's cast. "It is lots of fun!" says Lookatch, who has cerebral palsy. "I like watching the other people dance."

Emma Lookatch in rehearsal for The Nutcracker.

Courtesy The Joffrey Ballet

This new addition actually brings back a beloved Joffrey tradition. Robert Joffrey's version of The Nutcracker also used to include a role for a student with a disability. According to the Chicago Tribune, former artistic director Gerald Arpino added an accessible role for a Party Boy in 1997 when 8-year-old Stephen Hiatt-Leonard, who had cerebral palsy, auditioned for the children's cast.

For Lookatch, 14, this opportunity is a dream come true. Inspired by watching her younger sister Samara dance, Lookatch began taking a special needs ballet class at age 7. She hasn't looked back since.

"My biggest dream is that I go on 'America's Got Talent' and do a ballet performance," she says.

The Joffrey Academy's Adaptive Dance Program serves students with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, down syndrome and other varying movement abilities. Lookatch and Johnson have been taking private ballet classes with Tricia Strong through the program for the past three years.

"To say that Trish is wonderful is an understatement," says Bryan Lookatch, Emma's dad, noting that it was Strong who catalyzed the creation of this role. "This experience has really helped build Emma's confidence. It's something she never thought possible a few years back, so it really keeps her motivated."

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