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Victoria Jaiani

Victoria Jaiani practicing for her performance as the Little Mermaid.

Carolyn McCabe

The Joffrey's 'Little Mermaid' reaches for audience with its largest non-'Nutcracker' production

After treading water since 2021 in response to pandemic concerns, “The Little Mermaid” will finally be on stage through April 30th in what the Joffrey Ballet says is one of the biggest non-Nutcracker productions in the company’s history.

The Joffrey’s move in 2020 from the Auditorium theater to the larger stage at the Lyric Opera House opened up the possibility of a grand production with 46 dancers spread across two casts, and enormous set designs including a boat with a 28 foot chimney.

“It is a huge, huge undertaking in terms of scenic and in terms of choreography,” said Artistic Director of The Joffrey Ballet Ashley Wheater. “Everybody in the company says it’s an enormous amount of work.”

Wheater said Joffrey is confident that large audiences are ready to come back out for live arts and support the production. But many other arts organizations are still struggling and in fact facing increasing fiscal problems as pandemic relief funds expire.

Post-pandemic audiences

The Joffrey boasted $6 million in ticket sales in the 2021-2022 season, according to an impact report published by the company. That’s way below the $9 million in ticket sales reported in 2018-2019, but it is a bounce back from pandemic lows.

“We had over 50,000 people come to The Nutcracker. We know that people are really wanting to come back to the theater,” said Wheater. “Ever since we started our season back in October, running through The Nutcracker and then Anna Karenina, we have seen our audiences come back.”

Wheater said it’s been wonderful to see the support from the audience and they feel encouraged as they stage the ambitious production of The Little Mermaid after putting it on hold for two years. The ballet, choreographed by world-renowned John Neumeier, is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 tragic love story in which a mermaid willing to sacrifice everything for love trades in her tail for legs to dance on land.

Neumeier also led the set design, costumes and lighting and called for a grand scale of sets and costumes.

An approaching “fiscal cliff”

But not all arts organizations are feeling Wheater’s confidence in audiences.

Government funding and emergency COVID-era funds are ending for many performing arts centers in Chicago and many theaters report attendance has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Claire Rice, executive director with Arts Alliance Illinois, told WBEZ’s Reset theaters’ business models are facing fundamental challenges and the words “fiscal cliff” are not unfamiliar to the area’s performing arts organizations.

“We conducted a brief survey of the entire field showing 41% in November of 2022 are still seeing significant revenue loss for their organization,” said Rice. “That includes visual arts all across the art spectrum, so I think it’s even higher for the performing arts folks.”

Rice said the pandemic exacerbated some of the downward attendance trends affecting theaters but now could be a time to reimagine the way arts institutions can engage audiences.

“It’s really going to take a confluence of both audiences coming back, but then additional government support for this important work, philanthropic support and reexamination of the business model,” said Rice.

Wheater hopes big productions like The Little Mermaid meet the audience’s longing for live performances post-pandemic.

“Audiences are craving the live experience in the theater,” Wheater said. “To come and see these beautiful dancers that are at the top of their professional life deliver such extraordinary performances. They’re just so incredibly moving and beautiful.”

Araceli Gómez-Aldana is a reporter and host at WBEZ. Follow her @Araceli1010.

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