The 18th annual Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet – coming to the Desert VIsta High School Fine Arts Theatre Dec. 16-17 – requires months of planning, scores of volunteers, a professional choreographer and costume designer and more than 85 cast members and dancers ages 2 to 18.
This year, the incredible amount of work is being captured in a documentary that is destined for submission to the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and others nationwide.
The documentary, titled “Road to the Nutcracker,“ is the project of film major Darryl Henry, a senior at the Art Institute of Phoenix. A graduate of South Mountain High School, it was while he was a junior at McClintock High School that he was bit by the acting and production bug.
He has several short films already to his credit, but his quest for a worthy documentary subject brought him to Ahwatukee dance instructor Kimberly Lewis, her Studio 111, and those involved in the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet 2017.
“Wanting to do a documentary on a dance studio, I did some research and found Studio 111. As she explained it to me, I thought this is what I’ve been looking for,” said Henry, 22.
“As I listened I thought, ‘How do these girls balance life with so much required of them?’ Kimberly explained how everyone is a family at Studio 111, and most of the girls have been dancing here for most of their lives – practically growing up in the studio,” he continued, adding:
“I wanted to explore that connection, as well as the life lessons associated with being a part of this dance family. Which is why the documentary is a little play on words aimed to resemble the road to success, with all its ups and downs. This Nutcracker prepares them for life after high school, and life after dance.”
Thus, his Skyline Entertainment crew became yet another part of the Studio 111 and Nutcracker Ballet family.
As anyone associated with the annual ballet production could have told him, it takes a lot of time and effort.
“It’s been challenging. It’s a lot of work. Even though Kimberly explained everything, you really don’t know what you got yourself into until you get into it,” he said. “But even though it started out hard, now it’s becoming a real joy.”
The documentary reveals a lot of laughter and tears, he said.
“I’ve captured so much emotion,” he admitted.
Henry said after he finishes filming at the 2 p.m. matinee Dec. 17, he will head to the editing department where he will oversee the final cut. He expects that to be a long haul.
It is no less a haul for his subjects.
The Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet troupe has a plethora of appearances in addition to their 7 a.m.-to-4 p.m. weekend rehearsals heading up to the three performances.
On Nov. 25, the dancers provided a preview at the Festival of Lights Kick-Off’s Candy Lane Pavilion. From there, they headed downtown to the eighth annual CitySkate grand opening.
The next day, they entertained at the Arizona Grand’s Holiday Open House.
The annual Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet has become an Ahwatukee tradition with its mainly-student cast, exceptional costumes and stage design, and the special effects like the snow falling onstage.
The one evening and two matinee performances feature the classic dances of the Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet first presented in St. Petersburg, Russia December, 1892. But each year, Lewis, her choreographer and dress designer work to up the ante.
Besides the elaborate Victorian dresses worn in the party scene, new tutus are required, and are professionally hand-sewn, several taking up to 12 weeks to complete. Once they arrive, Lewis personally applies rhinestones, sometimes up to 2,000 per tutu.
Head choreographer and artistic director for all 18 productions has been Jill Hammond.
She’s assisted by Meghan Arena, who also plays Clara’s mother with her daughter, Leni, 5, appearing in her fourth Nutcracker.
Jon Nevison, who also builds props, plays Clara’s father and his wife DeAnn designed head pieces. Their daugher, Ashley, plays the Nanny.
An annual post-performance tradition makes the Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m. matinees traditional sell-outs.
“Following the matinees, Clara takes the stage and leads the audience in singing ‘Jingle Bells’ as Santa arrives on the stage in his sleigh,” said Lewis. “Snow falls inside the theater, the live Christmas tree grows to the ceiling and angels dance on clouds.
“All the cast members come out in costume to sign autographs and pose with theatre goers for photos. This is a great opportunity for the audience members to meet all the Queens, the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. We also invite them to sit on Clara’s throne with Clara in the land of Sweets for more photographs. It’s a magical family post-production tradition.”
“It’s such a joy to bring this magical production to our community each year. I have dancers who grew up in my studio doing our Nutcracker, and now their children are performing this year – the next generation,” exclaimed Lewis.
“I so appreciate our community attending the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet. Because of their support, we’ve been able to bring the magic of the Nutcracker to our community for the past 18 years.”
Information: AFNutcracker.com or 480-706-6040.