The shift from autumn to winter brings the traditions of the holiday season, and for many in the Flathead Valley, one of those rituals is to watch sugarplums dance not only in their heads, but on stage as well.
To be more accurate, it’s a Sugar Plum Fairy from “The Nutcracker” twirling around on stage, and when the audience finally sees her, it will be another holiday tradition to check off the list, yes, but also the culmination of 15 years of hard work on the part of the fairy.
In her real life, the Sugar Plum Fairy goes by Julia Esakoff, a 17-year-old senior at Whitefish High School who has been dancing since she could toddle into her older sister Danielle’s ballet class.
Which she did, Esakoff said, and instead of shooing the toddler aside, the instructor merely tried to find her a tutu to fit.
“I’ve been dancing ever since I started walking,” Esakoff said last week as the members of the Northwest Ballet Company in Kalispell spent a final week rehearsing before the shows.
Northwest Ballet Company has performed “The Nutcracker,” set to Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71,” at the Bigfork Performing Arts Center for the last 24 years; this year’s suite of shows take place Nov. 24 through Nov. 26.
As one of the show’s principal dancers, Esakoff will take on the role of her lifetime thus far, one she’s been working toward ever since her first Nutcracker performance as a lamb at 5 years old. She fell in love with being on stage at age 11, when she played a Party Girl who dances around with the ballet’s protagonist, Clara. It was thrilling to be up there, Esakoff said, especially with Clara in her pointe shoes, which are a mark of pride for dancers who have earned them.
“That put me on a whole new level of loving dance,” Esakoff said.
She earned her pointe shoes the next year, letting her keep pace with her best friend, who is a year older. Esakoff has been dancing with Northwest Ballet since she was 8 years old.
“I wanted to do other things,” she said during a brief rehearsal break. “But dance never left, because I just loved it.”
This year’s Nutcracker performance is already generating excitement in the Flathead, according to NBC director Marisa Roth.
“It’s really cool. There has been so much response about everything,” Roth said. “I am loving the buzz around the valley.”
Forty dancers will take part this year, down slightly from previous years. Roth said she had initially scheduled the auditions over an August weekend, but it turned out to be the weekend when kids’ events around the valley were canceled due to cyber threats.
“At first I was worried about cramming my usual nine weeks of rehearsal into eight, but the kids have really stepped up,” she said.
And as always, Roth has a front row seat to watching her dancers, such as Esakoff and fellow high school senior and principal dancer in the Snow Queen role Moira Bruce, blossom and grow to make these classic roles their own, making each production of the ballet unique.
“I just love how even though they love and yearn for those types of roles, they’re hard to step into,” Roth said. “It’s just so amazing from the time that they see themselves — their names — up on the cast list and they know what it’s like to fill those pointe shoes.”
Bruce said she’s been dancing since she was 3 years old, and has “always been that little girl who longed for a tutu and pointe shoes and wanted to dance ‘like the big girls.’” Esakoff said much of the same, basking in the accomplishment of finally making it to the roles she saw her role models perform.
“I’m just so excited,” Esakoff said. “I think it just means I’ve arrived and this is it.”
She also had some advice for those little girls and boys who see the show and feel pulled to try ballet: “If you really want to do it, put your heart and soul into it.”
“The Nutcracker” will show at the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Nov. 24, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 25, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 26, 4 p.m. The Sugar Plum Fairy Parade will follow the 2 p.m. matinees on Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available until show days at the Kalispell Grand Hotel, and on show days at the BCPA box office. For more information, call (406) 755-0760 or visit www.northwestballet.com.