When Tonya Easbey looks through the lens of her camera as she films Premiere Dance Company practicing “The Nutcracker,” she sees a fleeting reflection of herself.
A little over 20 years ago, Easbey was strapping on ballet slippers with an eye toward professional dance.
One of artistic director Charlene White’s first dance students in Helena, Easbey was forced to give up that dream after blowing out her knee.
Since then, she’s turned her career to journalism and film.
But love for dance and Premiere Dance Company drew her to start filming an independent documentary this fall with a working title of “Small Town Nutcracker USA.”
“The first week, tears kept coming to my eyes,” she said. “It’s bittersweet. You considered yourself for a good part of your life a dancer, then to separate from it and come back was very emotional for me.”
To be a professional dancer “was something I always wanted to try.”
The film “captures the continuing cycle of dance and practice, dance and practice and what that means to a young dancer.”
But there is much more.
“The Nutcracker ... resonates with anyone who ever strapped on a ballet shoe or listens to Tchaikovsky at Christmas. It’s an extravagant show and even the smallest of towns puts on its own version.
This year, Premiere performs its production at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19 and 2 p.m. Dec. 20 at the Helena Civic Center.
“Part of the reason I chose Premiere was that Charlene has a unique and nurturing familial take on producing ‘The Nutcracker,’” said Easbey.
But she’s been surprised at some of the other things she’s discovered.
“My footage already shows a rustic flavor, with little and big cowgirls. We’ve got yodeling, and dancing in ski jackets on a cold morning in the studio and building the parade float among big tractors.”
Some girls are not only consumed by dance and academic achievement but also arrive at practice in their cowboy boots talking about breaking their fillies.
“I’m getting to know families as well as individual dancers,” added Easbey.
Two young talented dancers, Grace and Seely Garrett, have drawn the entire family into the production.
Their father, Tim Garrett, is involving his students at Project for Alternative Learning. He teaches them the history of the “The Nutcracker,” gets them building and painting sets and advertising the production. Some years they even dance in it. The girls’ mom, Jeane, is on Premiere’s board.
“To go there (Premiere dance studio) on a Saturday, younger siblings sit there watching for hours. A mother comes in and makes one large lunch for everyone to come and eat. You’ll see brothers and fathers dancing in the party scene. You’ll see mothers sewing costumes.
“When a dancer signs on to ‘The Nutcracker’ the whole family signs on.”
Easbey’s camera captures smaller stories within the larger ballet.
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“There’s a little girl named Brigid Reedy,” said Easbey. “She’s 8 years old. She’s adorable. She yodeled for me on film.”
Because of her small size, Reedy’s been cast as a mouse for several years.
Easbey watched her mentally prepare to once again be a mouse.
“She came in and saw she was going to be a gingerbread and a reindeer. She was just giddy.”
There’s also the story of Ann Seeley, this year’s Sugar Plum Fairy, who has worked for years to earn the “plum role” only to be suddenly hampered by chronic, debilitating ankle pain.
“She’s very brave. To see her persevere ... I went to the doctor with her and I could see her deciding how much pain she would allow herself to show.”
Seeley’s ankle is just one of many challenges White has faced in the 18 years she’s put on “The Nutcracker.”
There was the year the Sugar Plum Fairy danced with a broken wrist; the time the cannon misfired, deafening everyone on stage to the music; and also the time the nutcracker went momentarily missing.
Ever since she was a child growing up in Cumberland, R.I., White’s pulled together the neighborhood to put on productions.
Her passion for dance inspired her to go on and get teacher training at the Hartford Ballet.
Some folks in Helena have asked her “Why ‘The Nutcracker’? Why do it for 18 years?”
White replies that her students wouldn’t have it any other way.
They love the production, she said. Their eyes are glued to the cast list every year when it comes out.
“It’s not about ‘The Nutcracker,’” added White. “It’s about each ‘Nutcracker’ and the community of people who give up Thanksgiving vacations to be in here working on the production. There’s all these people sharing what you’re trying to do.
“A local Nutcracker is something everyone can sit back and be proud of.
“It’s really about the kids having a great time and feeling good about it. This is a youth dance company. These dancers work very hard at what they do. They perform to the best of their ability. They perform like little professionals.”
Even when their role is that of a mouse, she said, “They feel like a princess or a Sugar Plum Fairy.
“These kids have a great experience.”
And for many it’s become much more than a Christmas-time ballet.
“I’m a board member and I believe in what she does,” said parent Janene Felter, who has three sons in the production. “It’s all about the kids. It shows in the way she works with them and loves them. That’s why we spend our time because of her as a focus.
“There’s a discipline they need that they get here – an ability to start something and follow it through. The small-town tradition, they find it here.”