SOUTH LOOP — Thirteen-year-olds K.J. Jacoby and Nora Ryan have both taken a "one-in-a-million" journey from an orphanage in rural China to the South Loop to the stage of Auditorium Theatre.
As toddlers, they were adopted by different families on the same day — Oct. 29, 2002 — from the same Chinese orphanage. Twelve years later, the eighth-graders live a block apart in the South Loop, both attend Old St. Mary's School, and — for the last three years — each has danced in the Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker."
Now they have a bond that will likely never be broken.
"We've been stuck together," K.J. said. "We're really close."
Justin Breen details their journey to the U.S.:
Their parents — Diane and John Jacoby, and Christine Ryan — are just as tight. And they understand the significance of their daughters' love for each other and for dance.
"These two little girls start out randomly being at the same social welfare place in China in 2001 to 13 short years [later] being on stage in arguably America’s No. 1 'Nutcracker' performance: That’s a one-in-a-million shot right there," Diane Jacoby said.
From Southern China to South Loop
Adopting a child from China was an easy decision for Diane Jacoby and Christine Ryan.
They both were "older" and wanted an addition to their families. They also liked the fact that Chinese adoption rules didn't require them to keep contact with the child's biological parents.
After two years of filling out paperwork and taking adoption classes, the Jacobys and Ryan first met as part of a group of seven Illinois families, including others from Rogers Park and Lincoln Park, that flew to China through the Family Resource Center adoption agency in 2002.
The seven children, including 1½-year-olds K.J. and Nora, were officially adopted at 2 a.m. Oct. 29 at a small office building in Wuzhou, a city in southern China. The seven kids — all girls now between 12 and 14 years old — became known as the "Wu Sisters," and the families made a deal to meet once a year at one of their homes for them to catch up.
But other than that, the Jacobys — both attorneys and who have an 18-year-old biological daughter, Renee, a senior at Jones College Prep — and Ryan likely wouldn't have congregated until similar circumstances coincidentally brought them to the South Loop in 2003. Needing larger living space, they moved into the neighborhood that year, and one day, Diane Jacoby walked right past Ryan in an alleyway in between their homes.
"We were shocked," Ryan said.
K.J. and Nora's friendship blossomed in 2006 when both started going to JCC Apachi Chicago Day Camp at University of Illinois at Chicago on the Near West Side. As a fourth-grader, K.J. joined Nora at Old St. Mary's School, which Nora had attended since preschool.
K.J. and Nora also have shared a passion for dance. K.J. has been involved with ballet since she was 6. Nora has been a ballerina since she was 3 years old, and also has taken Chinese, Irish, Broadway jazz and tap dance classes.
"It's just kind of been with me the whole time," Nora said.
K.J. had unsuccessfully auditioned for roles in "The Nutcracker" for two years before Nora and she tried out together in 2012. And, that year, both got parts as snow tree angels. In 2013, they were soldiers, and this year, they are "Party Boys" in the 20-plus-minute Party Scene that opens the show.
"K.J. and Nora are such an asset to the cast. They both stood out in the audition with their level of proficiency, focus and ability to make corrections," said Katie Kirwan, Joffrey Nutcracker Children’s Ballet Master. "They both smile continually throughout all rehearsals and seem to be delighted to be dancing. They work hard and never complain. It is such a pleasure to know them both.”
A Journal Filled With Love
During the two years prior to adopting Nora — before the girl was even born — Christine Ryan wrote a note to her future daughter every day in a journal describing the adoption process and how she couldn't wait to meet her. She plans to give Nora the journal as a 16th-birthday present.
Christine Ryan said when officials first handed her Nora, she wouldn't stop crying, and that lasted for several days.
"It wasn't until we got off the plane in Chicago that she turned and buried her head in my chest, and I knew it was OK," Christine Ryan said.
K.J. and Nora haven't returned to China, but both hope to visit their homeland. K.J. said she's had dreams about her biological mother but understands it will be difficult to find her, if that's even what she wants. Nora said she quests to locate her Chinese mother, too, "but not now."
And, if K.J. could send her birth parents a message, she would stress the following: "I think they would be happy and proud because they gave us up so we could have a better life. They knew we could get adopted and be safer and would be proud of our accomplishments."
The Joffrey Ballet performs "The Nutcracker" at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, through Dec. 28. The full performance schedule can be found online at Joffrey.org/nutcracker. Tickets range from $32 to $134 and are available at The Joffrey Ballet’s official Box Office located in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph St., as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University box office, all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers, by telephone at 800-982-2787 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.
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