This year's production of the Nutcracker, put on by the Ahwatukee Foothills Ballet, will be bigger than ever.

The performance features 135 local dancers, 45 more then ever before. In its 11th year, the Nutcracker remains the only Valley performance in which only kids under the age of 22 make up the cast.

"We are giving the kids in the area the opportunity to perform at a young age and it's amazing how talented they are," Director Kimberly Lewis said.

After the auditions in August, the cast and crew worked just about every weekend leading up to opening night tonight, Dec. 17. The performances are Friday and Saturday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. There is also a matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m. in which Santa Claus will make an appearance as well as the cast who will be around to take pictures with the public and sign autographs.

"It's a fun, family show to go to," Lewis said. "No other (Nutcracker) performance does that."

There are many students from Ahwatukee Foothills high schools who are part of the cast and Lewis said it was a sign of dedication that they chose to participate.

"They gave up their Fridays and Saturdays to be a part of this," she said. "Instead of going to football games or dances, they were here. And now that we are almost finished, many of them are kind of sad about that."

Desert Vista High School student JoJo Badgley, who has participated in all 11 performances, echoed Lewis' thoughts.

"When it's over, I always look forward to the next year," Badgley, 15, said. "We always give our best as a cast and it's lots of fun."

In addition to the intricate sets, there will be 400 handmade costumes on display, including tutus that take 16 weeks to make after Lewis orders them from places in New York and California.

"The parents are extremely dedicated and are always looking to help out when it comes to costumes," she said.

The Ahwatukee Foothills Ballet presentation of the Nutcracker takes place at the Desert Vista Fine Arts Theatre, 16440 S. 32nd St. Tickets are on sale at Dance Studio 111, 4910 E. Chandler Blvd., or by calling (480) 706-6040. Prices range from $18 to $30.

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