Jessica Cochran fell in love with ballet when she was 2 years old after she saw a ballet performance at the Chataqua festival in her hometown of Chewelah. She immediately asked her mother if she could start ballet classes.
“I told her she wasn’t old enough, and I thought she would forget,” her mother Sara Cochran said. “But like every month she would ask, ‘Am I old enough?’ ”
When Cochran started kindergarten, her mother finally gave in and put her in her first ballet class. “She couldn’t wait for the next one,” her mother said. “She thought a week was way too long to wait for her next class.”
Ten years later, Cochran, 15, is set to dance in her last “The Nutcracker” as a student this month. As a small child, Cochran’s first role in “The Nutcracker” was as a bon bon, the dancing candy played by young children in the second act.
It was the first time she ever auditioned for anything, and Cochran “100% did not expect to be picked.” “I was like I don’t think I’m good enough. I’m not going to get it,” Cochran said. “And then I did. It was the best feeling in the world. I thought that I was invincible, and it was amazing.”
Cochran spent the next few years dancing increasingly difficult roles in “The Nutcracker.” “The Nutcracker” with the Spokane Symphony is an annual tradition that features local ballet students and professional dancers from State Street Ballet. The holiday show also is a rare opportunity for students to dance with live symphony music, said Sara Donally, director of Spokane Ballet Studio.
In certain roles, the students get to be onstage with the professionals, dance with them and interact with them backstage. When Cochran was cast as a mouse after two years of dancing as a small angel, she was thrilled to get a chance to work with the professional dancers.
“I was dancing onstage with the professionals and interacting with them way more than I had in the years before,” Cochran said. “I was so intimidated by them because they’re professionals. They’re the ones who actually made it and are doing it for a living.”
For Cochran, the professionals are inspiring and a look at the future the 15-year-old works toward every day.
Cochran took classes from Northern Ballet and Performing Arts under Ann Marie Benedict in Chewelah until the studio closed in June. By that time, Cochran had already started driving into Spokane once a week for an extra dance class.
“There were more girls my age at the class in Spokane, and it was nice to have people who were my age and doing the same thing I was,” Cochran said.
After her freshman year of high school and the closure of the dance studio, Cochran made a big commitment to ballet. She switched to an online high school program, and her family committed to driving the hour into Spokane three days a week so Cochran could spend hours at her new dance studio, Company Ballet School.
A typical day for Cochran starts early. She still takes jazz band at the high school she used to attend. Cochran grew up in a musical family. Her mother has taught piano lessons out of their home since long before Cochran or her older brother, Isaac, were born.
Cochran plays the piano, flute, piccolo, tenor saxophone and guitar. “I’ve always grown up with music in the background of my life,” Cochran said. Part of why ballet is so important to Cochran is her “love for music and just moving my body and being able to express myself in a way I can’t with words.”
After jazz band, Cochran heads back home for school before leaving in the early afternoon for dance. While the transition from regular high school life hasn’t been easy, it has helped Cochran find a better balance with family, school and dance.
“I feel like I have more opportunities to do different things,” Cochran said. “I feel like I get to spend more time with my family doing online school because I’m not always either at school or in my room doing homework. I have times where I can come down and spend time with them.”
Not seeing her friends or having time to be social at school is difficult, Cochran admitted, but pursing her passion for ballet is worth it. “I think the best part about it is that I’m following my dreams,” Cochran said. “I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, and I love it.”
All the extra work has started to pay off. Cochran’s teacher decided this year that the teen was ready for her point shoes.
Dancing en pointe is something a teacher decides a student is ready to do based on their strength and technique, Cochran said. Most lead roles and solos in classic ballets are en pointe, making the transition an achievement for young ballerinas.
“I was so excited, and I was definitely ready for it,” Cochran said. “I’ve been working for this for so long. I was stoked.” Dancing en pointe also meant that Cochran could audition for the role of a tall angel in “The Nutcracker” this year.
“Auditions were different for me this year because I had never done an audition en pointe,” Cochran said. During auditions, Emily Grizzell, a teacher at Spokane Ballet School where the children in “The Nutcracker” rehearse every year, saw a girl with dark hair on the far side of the studio.
Grizzell noticed quickly that the girl had good technique and would be a good fit for an angel role. It wasn’t until after auditions were over and Cochran had been selected that Grizzell realized it was someone she knew well from “The Nutcracker” rehearsal every year.
“I just saw this big growth in her ability from last year,” Grizzell said.
Someone from State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara, California, travels to Spokane for the young dancers’ tryouts. Grizzell and Donnally help with auditions and then rehearse the cast after they are selected.
Cochran was surprised when she received the difficult role of a tall angel this year. “I was shocked because I had only started point two or three months before that,” Cochran said.
Shortly after auditions, another dancer pulled out of the show, leaving a first-act opening for the role of a party parent. Grizzell knew immediately that Cochran would be the perfect fit for the extra part.
A week before the show, Cochran looked like “The Nutcracker” veteran she is in rehearsals for the party scene where she will dance with younger party children as they receive gifts.
The professional dancers also will be onstage, another chance for Cochran to learn from them and sneak in backstage time to ask them questions as she pursues her own career in dance.
“I want to do that. That looks like so much fun,” Cochran said. “I want to work every day on it and get to that point where I can do it for a living and enjoy every second of it.”
Cochran plans to participate in intensive dance programs next summer and continue working hard through the school year on ballet.
“You can tell that it’s just something that she really loves, and her family supports her, as well,” Grizzell said. Dancing professionally is only one of Cochran’s many dreams. She also wants to study marine biology in college.
For now, Cochran is focused on rehearsing for her first performance en pointe. She is looking forward to her costume fitting before the show where she will get the classic white romantic tutu, a white leotard, small angel wings and a yellow ribbon to complete the ensemble.
“I’m a very outgoing person when I’m onstage,” Cochran said. “I feel like it’s a way to express myself and show the audience this is who I am as a dancer – this is me.”