Five new queens are in this year’s 19th annual production of the popular local holiday classic, the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet.
There are 10 queens in total, and the new queens who were selected after intense auditions in August include girls from Desert Vista High School, Corona del Sol and Altadena Middle School.
This is a busy time for the cast and producer, Kimberly Lewis, owner of Dance Studio 111.
In addition to several appearances over Thanksgiving weekend, there are rehearsals and costume fittings for the three shows at the Desert Vista High School auditorium that have become an annual tradition for Ahwatukee – and often sold out.
This is the first year the Nutcracker features this many new queen dancers.
The five new queens are Jayden Droz, who played Clara three years ago, Queen of Sweets; Sara Allen is Marzipan Queen – she played Clara in 2016; Morgan Eaton, a junior at Corona del Sol, is the China Queen; Natalie Sterling, who starred as Clara last year, is the Russian Queen. Her sister, Hanna Sterling, is returning this year as the Spanish Queen. Leah Goldstone, a Desert Vista freshman in her ninth year in the Nutcracker, is playing her first queen role as Angel Queen.
Jayden Droz, Sara Allen and Natalie Sterling are all Altadena eighth-graders.
As the Sterling sisters indicate, the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet is often a family affair. For Jayden Droz and her younger brother, Greyson Droz – starring as Fritz – it is even more so.
Their aunt, Taylor Ake, danced in the inaugural Ahwatukee Nutcracker when she was in eighth grade.
“I started dancing at Dance Studio 111 at age seven and continued through high school,” said Ake, an Ahwatukee resident. “My last role was as Snow Queen when I was a Desert Vista sophomore.”
This year, two of her daughters are appearing in the ballet.
Emerson, 4, is a Bon Bon who dances with her cousin, Jayden Droz, the Queen of Sweets.
“They are onstage alone at one point, and it’s a very special moment,” she said. “Most people won’t realize they’re related, but for family it’s pretty sweet.”
Daughter Campbell, 3, is making her debut, performing as a Baby Mouse and March Girl.
“And my sister, Alexandria from Chandler, has her three-year-old daughter Hazel in her first show,” said Ake, sister of the Queen of Sweets’ mother, Kacey Droz.
In winning and playing the role of Fritz, Greyson Droz, 7, is following in the footsteps of his brother Hudson, who played the role last year.
“I’m excited to be Fritz,” said the Kyrene de Los Cerritos second-grader. “I think it’s fun, and I get to dance with Clara.”
His sister, Jayden, said entering her 11th year with the Nutcracker didn’t lessen the joy at winning a coveted queen role.
“It feels amazing. I’ve been watching all the older girls doing these roles, and finally I get the chance. Its breathtaking,” she said.
Jason Droz, father of Jayden and Greyson, is the troupe’s PR and marketing director and was responsible for setting up the system that will allow tickets to be purchased online for the first year.
Their mother, Kacey Droz, is busy backstage helping her daughter with multiple costume changes for two of the three shows, with Ake taking over the responsibilities for the other so Mom can watch.
“Being backstage with my girl is some of my most treasured memories. She’s growing up before our eyes, so these moments seem fleeting. The quickest change we ever had was when she was Clara, changing from the red dress to the white gown in less than 30 seconds. She has yet to not make it on stage in time; we’re hopeful to keep that going,” she said.
This year’s Butterfly Queen is Ally Nash, a Desert Vista High junior who has played three other Queen roles in her years with the company. Her sister, Madi Nash – a 2018 Desert Vista grad who is an ASU freshman and spirit squad and dance team member – had played four queen roles as well.
Her parents, Dave and Tammy Nash, have been Nutcracker parents and avid supporters for a decade.
“This is our 10th year with the Nutcracker Ballet, and we’re very proud of both girls for all the work they put into their dancing. Through dance, they’ve developed both poise and confidence, and because dance requires year-round training and takes so much time, they’ve also learned life skills like time management and prioritization,” said Tammy Nash, whose husband and oldest son Jaxon, an ASU sophomore, serve as ushers for the ballet.
Desert Vista junior Bella Gregg, who dances as this year’s Snow Queen, is also a part of a long-running Nutcracker family dynasty. Desert Vista 2018 alum Olivia Gregg, her older sister, performed as the Arabian Queen last year among other roles during the years.
Also a freshman at ASU, she teaches part-time at Dance Studio 111.
Both Bella and Olivia Gregg have played the roles of Clara, the Sugar Plum and Butterfly Queen, and now Snow Queen.
Other dancers performing as queens this year include Ashleigh Griffin, a junior at Arizona College Prep as the Arabian Queen, and Avery Katherine, a DV junior, as this year’s Sugar Plum Queen. Both have starred in multiple Nutcracker Ballets.
Family involvement in the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet never ceases to please and amaze Lewis.
“There are so many wonderful family stories that go into our Nutcracker every year. I wish everyone knew all the stories behind our Nutcracker and the connections with family,” she said. “We’re not just a Nutcracker cast, we’re a Nutty Family.”
Winning the coveted role of Clara this year is Kyrene Altadena Middle School seventh-grader Kendall Birnbaum.
Dancing with Studio 111 has been a part of her life since age three, but it was appearing onstage in the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet as a Baby Mouse and China Baby at age four that solidified her desire to dance in the annual production.
The daughter of Brett Birnbaum and Tricia Fuller, the 12-year-old recalled how she learned she’d won the role after auditioning in mid-August.
“Kimberly drives around, placing red signs in your yard that say “A Nutcracker Cast Member Lives Here,’ so you go outside and see what role you won. It was like 6:30 in the morning and my mom ran outside behind me and screamed, and my dad was videotaping, and I jumped around when I saw the sign said ‘Clara.’ It’s taken a lot of hard work to get here, and I never knew I’d get to play Clara,” she smiled.
She said even though the part can be difficult, she admires her character’s attributes.
“I like that Clara is determined but also curious about the world around her,” said Birnbaum.
The only nervousness she confessed to involved the ‘Pas de Trios’ with the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Avery Katherine) where the prince, Ryan Sadowsky, lifts Clara.
“I really respect Avery and Ryan, and I want to dance as well as I can,” she said. “I want to dance at their level, which is very high.”
Sadowsky, 15, who commutes from Tucson for the production, is a professional dancer and actor who lists national television shows and commercials among his other accomplishments in broadcast and theatre. This is the second Nutcracker the Catalina High School sophomore has been in. He also plays the Nutcracker role.
All cast members range in age from 3 to 21 except for a few adults in supporting roles.
The Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet with its rich costumes and stellar staging, including the post-performance onstage snowfall, has three performances Dec. 15 and 16 at the Desert Vista High School Fine Arts Theatre.
The 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday feature a Santa visit, with theater-goers encouraged to come onstage to snap photos with him in his elaborate sleigh and meet and greet cast members. Autographs and photos with the cast can also be done, and posing with Clara on her throne in the Land of Sweets is perennially popular.
The Dec. 17 show at 7 p.m. historically sells out quickly.
To purchase tickets online, see AFNutcracker.com/tickets. Tickets are also available at Dance Studio 111, 4910 E. Chandler Blvd., suite 111.