Ahwatukee Nutcracker

Last year’s performance of the Ahwatukee Nutcracker was streamed virtually from the Madison Center for the Arts.

Dance Studio 111 founder and owner Kimberly Lewis said she’s beyond thrilled to host auditions for the 22nd annual Ahwatukee Foothill Nutcracker Ballet.

Last December was a bust for any live performances, though Lewis strove valiantly to present the 21st annual holiday event through live streaming. 

But this year, all stops are being pulled out as plans for this holiday staple - to be presented to a live audience once again - begins with auditions Aug. 14.

“You don’t have to attend my studio to audition,” said Lewis, who still has nightmares over the Year of COVID, when her Ahwatukee dance studio shuttered its doors and she struggled to stay afloat.

Like so many businesses, it was a year spent teetering on the edge.

“I’m just so happy we’re still here and planning once again for a real performance,” she said. “And this is open to all dancers around the valley.”

The auditions are scheduled according to age, beginning at 9 a.m. for ages 3-5, followed by an hour each for ages 6-9 and ages 10 through 13. 

At noon, boys of all ages are slotted for a half-hour audition, with boys and girls ages 14 to 20 set for 90 minutes beginning at 12:30 p.m.

Auditions can be nerve-wracking, as Lexa MacKenzie discovered last year when she approached her first one. Even though the 14-year-old has been dancing for 11 years, she was new to Dance Studio 111.

“I was really nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, and because I was new and didn’t know any of the kids,” said Lexa, 14, a freshman at Horizon Honors Secondary School.

“After the audition I was antsy and anxious to know what role I’d get. I thought I’d done really well in the Arabian Queen part, so when I got up the next morning and saw that I had earned that role, I was really happy,” she said. “I can’t wait for the next audition and this year’s Nutcracker because I know there will be more memories and adventures to come.” 

Memories remain for Madi Nash, one of three new choreographers for this year’s Ahwatukee Nutcracker. A long-time student and instructor at Dance Studio 111, Nash has performed annually in the Nutcracker in various roles. 

“When I was 16 years old, I really wanted to be the Snow Queen, so I worked for it all summer,” she recalled. “I went to every ballet class and scheduled many private sessions to improve my skills. I felt so confident and at ease going into the audition. 

“It turned out to be my best audition because I got the part and I couldn’t have been more excited about it,” the 2018 Desert Vista High grad said. 

“All of my favorite memories from Nutcracker auditions growing up included a supportive environment from the judges and other dancers,” said Nash, who is in her last year studying business at Arizona State University and teaches dance at Dance Studio 111. “Although the auditions can be intimidating and nerve wracking, the judges were always teaching dancers professionalism, all while keeping the mood uplifted.” 

Other new choreographers include Jordan Hill, another Nutcracker veteran, and Ashley Jerger, who teaches ballet at Dance Studio 111.

Lewis has produced all prior 21 Ahwatukee Foothill Nutcracker Ballets.

“We’re pretty proud of what we accomplish every year. Once auditions hit in August, we jump in, full force, and have eight, sometimes nine-hour days each Saturday,” she said, adding that often mid-week rehearsals are called as the troupe readies not only for the December productions, but also special area ‘sneak peek’ mini-shows during Thanksgiving. 

As she looks forward to the upcoming auditions that will launch the 2021 Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker shows on Dec. 18 and 19th, Lewis recalled anxious moments as she scurried to put on the holiday show in the midst of a pandemic. 

“Pulling off a Nutcracker during a pandemic in 2020 was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. First, no theater in town was open, so we couldn’t get a theater,” she said, adding the show’s usual venue at Desert Vista High theater was unavailable due to the Tempe Union High School District’s shutdown of all campuses.

“I was able to find only one open theater in town and that was the Madison Center for The Arts. We were told we could have a live audience at limited capacity. I wanted to keep some sort of normal routine for our children. 

“So much was taken away from them due to the pandemic so it was very important to me to pull off this Nutcracker,” she said. “And this was the first year we had nine brand new queens performing.”

“One week prior to our opening night, we were told that we could not have a live audience due to a spike in COVID cases. Without ticket sales, we could not cover any cost that goes into this production.”

And yet, as is her modus operandi, she persevered. 

“I couldn’t let our cast down. The children had been rehearsing every weekend August to December, so the show had to go on. I was able to hire a live-feed company to come in at the last minute to stream our Nutcracker, so the show did go on. And I had my sound tech add in clapping sound effects so our dancers felt that there was an audience in attendance.”

The last-minute live feed drew many appreciative responses locally and from viewers in other states as far away as South Carolina, Lewis said.

So, she plans to offer both a live-stream this year in addition to the full-capacity live stage performances.

“It’s not easy doing a live feed and the cost is a lot, but it’s so worth it for loved ones who cannot travel to Arizona, or due to COVID are hesitant to go out, and can now enjoy the magic of the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker in the comfort of their homes,” she said. 

Further information and required audition attire for the upcoming auditions for the 2021 Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker: AFNutcracker.com. 

 Lewis said some dancers will be asked to remain for other audition slots, so a flexible schedule is necessary. 

And she stressed that the auditions and performance is not just for dancers. Anyone ages 3 to 19 is welcome as there are numerous roles for non-dancers.

The three 2021 holiday performances this year are slated to be held once again at the Madison Center for the Arts, a 3-year-old Phoenix venue located at 5601 N. 16th St. 

The state-of-the-art, 160,000 square foot Madison Center for the Arts features a 908-seat auditorium. 

“It was again the only theatre open at the time we were looking for a rental,” explained Lewis, who opened her dance studio 28 years ago. “And because this theater was so kind to us last year, renting to us when no one else was.  We’re grateful to do Nutcracker in this lovely theater this year with an actual live audience.”

Dance Studio 111 is located in suite 111 at 4910 E. Chandler Blvd., Ahwatukee.  Information is also available at DanceStudio111.com and by phone at 480-706-6040. 

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