The Chanel Army: Early Days of the Joffrey







Editor’s Note: A glimpse of the Women’s Board of the Joffrey Ballet underscores our adage: When you want a job done—whether it is fundraising, making lifelong friends for the organization, or creating a buzz in Chicago—turn to a women’s board. We learned how this prestigious board began and how it stays effective.


As the Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker enchants at the Auditorium Theatre through the end of December, its Women’s Board can celebrate that they always have stayed poised on their toes to help make the Joffrey a premier Chicago cultural institution. Key founder Maureen Smith termed her early posse the “Chanel Army,” women who knew what people want more than anything: access to the action.


Cara Marie Gary performs in The Nutcracker. Photo by Cheryl Mann.


Temur Sulashvili. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the Joffrey Ballet Company in 1956 with Robert Joffrey in New York and served as its associate director for many years, moved the Joffrey Ballet to Chicago in 1995. At first, some Chicagoans were skeptical that the world-famous company would remain here for more than a few years, but the Chicago leaders and balletomanes who joined forces to found the board made sure it was here to stay.

Soon after the Women’s Board was created, Chicago’s social and cultural leaders were being asked to attend Joffrey rehearsals and given opportunities to meet the dancers, and their families were invited to Nutcracker luncheons preceding the ballet where the greatest sugar rushes ruled as kids in party attire grazed bountiful tables that even Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory visitors would envy.


Maureen Smith (right) with husband, EB.

Maureen recently described those early days for us:

“Chicago is city of second acts: the Columbian Exposition after the fire and the Joffrey after its run in New York. It was a full-grown institution when it came to Chicago, not a start-up. We have had in Chicago a number of excellent regional ballets, but the Joffrey was the first ballet company to dance in Russia, first to dance at the White House, and first to be on the cover of Time Magazine.

“I was a founding member of the senior Joffrey board and knew that the gentlemen wouldn’t relish decorating for benefits—we needed a women’s board that not only liked planning events but also knew how to open doors. It demanded people who could introduce us to the people who made funding decisions for a company, foundation, or family. I can still remember that Chanel Army marching out to corporate offices, and even the fun they had advising one another about what to wear to our galas.

“I knew that we needed a large board but we certainly didn’t know at the time how it would turn out. I remember asking Renee Crown if she thought one of her daughters would like to join the board, and she said that she would like to herself. We had a wonderful time.”

Key to keeping a women’s board vibrant is the love of their work and the camaraderie created. Maureen said: “In the last 10 years, we have really gotten to know the dancers—it was important as we gave support to the Joffrey that we needed to put a face to a name. The dancers are really fun, and we even had contests with them of who had the ugliest feet. I remember one dancer asked what she should call me. I said Maureen but on a bad day she could call me mom.”

 Women’s Board member Kim White spearheaded the effort to publish the first book on the Joffrey in Chicago, and a second book detailing its history will be out shortly. Ashley Wheater serves as the Mary B. Galvin artistic director and Greg Cameron is the Joffrey president and CEO.


Current board president, Noren Ungaretti with Greg Cameron and Christopher Wheeldon at a past gala. Photo by Dan Rest.

The Joffrey’s Women’s Board today is led by Noren Ungaretti, who radiates Maureen’s determination, humor, and wisdom with her own distinctive leadership style honed in her leadership of numerous local organizations and non-profit consulting. We asked Noren to tell us about the Joffrey Women’s Board today but first why she feels women’s boards are essential. She shared the perfect metaphor: “I compare a women’s board to a coral reef. In order to have a vibrant ocean environment, you need to have a living coral reef that sustains the plankton, plant life, and small fish who live there, which attract larger fish, and every now and then, you get a yacht with a really big fish coming through.”

She took a look back at the history of women’s boards in Chicago and their vibrant present:

“Women’s boards have a significant history in Chicago, going back to Berthe Honoré Palmer’s Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 World’s Fair and Colombian Exposition. She organized her friends—social and civic leaders of their era—to promote the role of women in building the city and the new west of this country.

“In today’s world, women’s boards continue that concept and provide an outlet for women’s interests like no other entity. Women like to interact and network in ways that are different than men, and women, like everyone, like to have the opportunity to make friends with others who share their interests—often not easily done in a business environment, especially at executive levels. What better common interest than working for a philanthropic goal?

“For the non-profits, there are even more benefits. A women’s board offers a more accessible gift level for people to become close allies of the organization, furthering the depth of integration into the community. Women’s board members are dynamic about bringing in friends and spouses to be part of the mission, also increasing the organization’s impact.

“In addition, there are many vendor partners who have tailored marketing strategies to appeal to women who are interested in alliances that are mutually advantageous. Finally, women’s boards often offer ways of engaging with female colleagues and friends that are entertainment alternatives to sporting events or restaurant outings.”


Noren Ungaretti (right) and daughter. Photo by Dan Rest.

Noren proudly told us about the Joffrey’s Women’s Board:

“We have 153 members of the board, and many have been involved since its founding by Maureen Smith and her friends, with 26 from the very first group. We are all very active, even the supporting members!

“We have many ways to engage with the institution as there are always so many things happening! The Joffrey needs support not only for the 46 member professional company and its performances but also for the Joffrey Academy of Dance, which develops students into career ready professionals, and for our large Community Engagement program that supports and educates over 7000 youths each year.

“We provide support for new works and innovations both on the stage and in the classrooms by fundraising, but we are also devoted subscribers, with members often attending multiple performances to see the different casts.

“Women’s Board members volunteer as supernumeraries: we have been organizers backstage for the many children who participate in the in the Nutcracker, and we travel to see the company perform in other cities. We are also students in the ballet classes conducted at the Academy.

“We are primarily a fundraising organization that produces a fall luncheon and spring gala, but the members are also deeply committed to the company’s many other areas. We volunteer on committees, such as our very active Community Engagement committee that organizes, supports, attends, and escorts students in our partner programs with Chicago Public Schools. We also tap into our personal and professional networks to engage new audiences and find new allies through activities such as the Women’s Night at the Joffrey series, a women’s networking evening of attending dinner and a performance.

“We still invite guests to see rehearsals and, especially with the new works, those rehearsals provide special opportunities to view a dynamic creative process and learn about the many elements of dance. I don’t think I could possibly say there is one thing we most like to do—we like so many things about our ballet company.”

Key to keeping a board motivated is being at the essence of what the board is all about. Both Maureen and Noren have loved ballet since childhood. Maureen related, “Growing up in New York, I was very fortunate that my grandmother and maiden aunt took me frequently to wonderful ballet performances. I never thought I would get to work with Gerry Arpino. When I was in grammar school, I loved to draw dancers. It was definitely not ‘move over Degas’ but so much fun. I took a lot of ballet as a child but later realized I was too tall to move ahead.”

Noren told us:

“I have always loved the ballet! I studied it as a young person, as did many of the Women’s Board members. My instructor, Mr. Kaminski, danced the role of Mme. Bonbonniére in the Ruth Page production at the Arie Crown Theater, and we went every year. So a list of ballets I love must include The Nutcracker, in all its versions, and especially the new version set in Chicago’s Columbian Exposition.

“In contrast, my other favorite would have to be Mammatus, a work choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, one of the rare female choreographers. Watching the company perform this work about cloud formations and the grace of birds in flight transported me from the Auditorium into the firmament. It was simply, perfectly beautiful.”


A snowy Nutcracker scene. Photo by Cheryl Mann.


Christine Rocas. Photo by Cheryl Mann.


Dancers in front of the ferris wheel. Photo by Cheryl Mann.


Mammatus. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

We asked Noren to tell us more about the company, her work, Joffrey memories, and future events:

Why do you think that the Joffrey is considered one of the finest companies in the world?

 Ashley Wheater has cultivated a vital environment of innovation and diversity. The organization’s substantial history and commitment to excellence allows it to be on that international platform of a major cultural institution. It contributes not only to the dance world but also to the depth of life in our own community. We also have outstanding talent in administrative leadership from our CEO and president, Greg Cameron, who has deep roots in the Chicago cultural community.

Our artistic staff is also active in partnering with other local cultural groups by making presentations to groups or working in other art forms, such as last year’s performances in tandem with the Lyric Opera in Orphée and Eurydice. We also offer many educational programs to meet the artists and learn about the works, often in tandem with our subscriptions but in many other venues as well.


Noren Ungaretti and Greg Cameron, from the year she co-chaired the gala. Photo by Dan Rest.

Noren, you have headed many groups, including the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum and the Women’s Board of Parkways Foundation. You work hard, are well informed, and express such enthusiasm and delight in your work with others. How would you define leadership?

Leadership is truly a privilege. I have learned so much from the different organizations I have been a part of that I have gained far more than I have ever given. I have made many dear friends that I might never have known otherwise and have had so many wonderful adventures.

It is a profound honor to be chosen by ones peers to be their principal, and I take the responsibility to listen and learn about their priorities and preferences very seriously, as there is a continuum in volunteering. I am only in these roles temporarily, so I try to give my best advice to benefit everyone before I pass my duties on to the next person, who will add their best, and so on.

Tell me about your concept of teamwork.

To be a leader of one’s peers is to remember that we each have a point of view that may vary but when we come together in a common cause, we become greater than we could be as individuals. As a team leader, my role is not only to set strategy and direction but to empower others and bring forward their ideas and energy. In a team there can be multiple points of view, but we all benefit by hearing one another’s ideas. New viewpoints are where we find growth and strength.


Giving her gala remarks. Photo by Dan Rest.

What are some Joffrey memories you’ve particularly relished?

I had a wonderful evening at our gala years ago where I had the opportunity to see what happens when you put two dynamic artists together. I was leading a charitable group partnered with the Chicago Park District, and had the opportunity to become friendly with the founding artist of Lollapalooza, Perry Ferrell. He and his wife, Etty, were in town for a press conference announcing that Lolla was coming to Chicago. Over dinner I learned Etty studied classical ballet in Hong Kong and was a fan of our company.

The next night was the Joffrey Gala, and Etty very much wanted to see the performance, so I brought them along. When I introduced them to my friends, many were confused about the name of Perry’s group, Jane’s Addiction, and some even asked, ‘What was Jane’s problem?’ or ‘Who is Jane?” or commented that it was too bad about Jane. But Maureen Smith, standing in the reception line at the party next to Mr. Arpino, knew immediately who Perry was—she had a son who was a fan—and was very warm and welcoming to Perry and Etty.

When we introduced Perry to Mr. Arpino, he did not miss a beat and said, ‘I have always wanted to set a work to more contemporary music. We should talk.’ It was such a rare moment of seeing creative talent ignite, bracketed by the hilarity of the earlier discussions and the context of putting an alternative rock icon into a classical dance context.

Tell us about about what’s coming up for the rest of the season.

Everyone is excited for February’s unveiling of the world premiere of Anna Karenina. The choreographer, Yuri Possokov, spoke about the work at our Fall Luncheon. In the spring we have the cutting edge mixed rep program featuring three rising British choreographers in Across the Pond. Next season has many more exciting productions, to be announced in early 2019.


For further information about the Joffrey Ballet and upcoming performances, including The Nutcracker, visit