Front and center, wearing a dazzling red-and-white striped dress, in one of Puget Sound’s most beloved annual performances is Isabelle Rookstool of Langley.
The 11-year-old girl is a student at Pacific Northwest Ballet and one of two dancers featured as Clara, the protagonist in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” Playing Clara is a dream come true for the young ballerina.
“I wanted to be Clara because she’s like the star of the whole show,” Isabelle said in her Langley home, fully decorated in Christmas spirit with lights, a Nutcracker, even stockings hung over the fireplace.
For the past four years, Isabelle has trained with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. This is also her fourth time in “The Nutcracker,” having played a baby mouse, a party guest, and been in the toy theater. When she started, there were a couple of other students who traveled from Whidbey Island. These days, it is just Isabelle and her older sister Grace. Grace Rookstool was too old and too advanced in her skill level to participate in “The Nutcracker” this year, so Isabelle is Whidbey Island’s lone representative in the holiday performance.
“We’ve always been able to make it work and not have to drive every day of the week,” said her mother, Laura Rookstool.
The Rookstools are a family of 12 — two parents, 10 children. Just Grace and Isabelle have studied ballet at schools in Edmonds and Seattle. Every one of the family members living in Washington makes it to at least one show, Laura Rookstool said. Isabelle’s father, Bob Rookstool, said ballet was important in their family for one clear reason: “It creates tough girls.”
Isabelle just started dancing with pointe shoes, progressing to more technically demanding ballet. So far, her ankles and legs, which are sometimes bruised and battered in the pursuit of the perfect plié, have held up well. Her toes are a different story.
“I get blisters,” Isabelle said.
Despite being a student there, she had to audition. The role is split by Isabelle and Eden Anan at different performances. Isabelle impressed Artistic Director Peter Boal with her willingness to learn and stage presence.
“Isabelle was a delight to work with,” Boal said. “She was quite professional for such a young artist, open minded to coaching on acting as well as dancing. She had a natural charm and sense of stage about her, which served her well in her role as Clara.”
The ballet tells of a magical nutcracker gifted to Clara. It turns into a prince, who then takes Clara on a magical adventure before returning home and resuming his role as a wooden sentinel best used for getting at walnuts.
In past productions of “The Nutcracker,” Clara transformed along with the nutcracker and become an older princess, played by a different ballerina. Under Balanchine’s direction, Clara remains a girl. That means there is far more stage time for Isabelle.
Just before the curtains raise and the lights fall on the stage, Isabelle said she still gets nervous. Once she glides in front of an audience, those feelings disappear as if shook off by her pirouette.
She credited her calm to learning from the original Clara ballerina in Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.”
“She’s really nice,” Isabelle said.
Her favorite scene, the party, is one of the most chaotic. With a few dozen people on stage, dancing and playing and clamoring for gifts, Isabelle said it has some of the most exciting energy.
Shortly after that comes the battle between the soldiers and the mice, and the nutcracker/prince and the mouse king. That’s when she plays a frightened child, until she musters enough courage to hurl her slipper at the mouse king to distract him long enough to be slain by the prince. The throw has been off at times, but Isabelle said it is crucial to the performance as a signal for the mouse king to turn.
“It’s hard not to laugh because you’re supposed to be scared,” she said.
A homeschooled student, Isabelle said one of the best parts of ballet is visiting with her fellow dance friends. A total of 140 students perform 70 roles, so she has lots of friends at Pacific Northwest Ballet. But there will be only one Clara when she is there.