Everyone entranced by the beautiful dances performed at the annual Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet has Meghan Arena to thank.
Arena, who once again also reprises her role as Clara’s Mother, is the main choreographer for this 20th anniversary event, slated for three performances – noon and 5:30 p.m. Saturday Dec. 14, and 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15.
Tickets are still available either at 480-706-6040 or afnutcracker.com. If any are left, they’ll be at the door of Desert Vista High School Theatre, 16440 S. 32nd S., Ahwatukee.
Arena has helped choreograph the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet for 11 years.
But this year she is the sole choreographer – with the exception of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which was done for the troupe by Russell Clarke, an associate professor of dance the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.
“This year I’ve used some choreography from the past, but the rest is mostly new. I’m also using my own choreography for the younger kids, then bits and pieces from our past artistic director, Jill Hammond, in some of the second act, but I’ve put my own touch on it,” she explained, adding:
“I just have a vision and really wanted this year to show it and showcase what how I want our Nutcracker to look.”
A dancer herself who trained and performed from age 11 at The School of Ballet Arizona and other studios throughout the Valley as a youngster, Arena began teaching at Dance Studio 111 in 2008.
Besides ballet, Arena also taught tap, jazz, combo and competition classes there. She left teaching because “I was loving family time.”
Arena’s whose two children, daughter Leni, 7, and son Jett, 5, both perform in this year’s Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet.
“My daughter Leni made her first appearance in our 2012 Nutcracker at just 15 months as a China Baby. She now dances multiple roles and loves spending all day with the big girls and her friends. Dance Studio 111 is her second home, and she loves performing,” smiled Arena.
“My son Jett joined last year at age four as a March Boy, and strives to be Fritz one day, so that’s his big goal,” she added.
The age range of the 85 dancers – 2 to 18 – years, can make for some extended hours and interesting rehearsals, said Arena.
“Rehearsals are tricky sometimes,” she laughed. “It’s been easier to schedule this year since I am the only one rehearsing the kids but it makes for long days. We start rehearsing in August, and I’m usually at the studio weekends from 7 or 7:30 in the morning to four or five at night.
” I also work with some of the older girls during the week for a few hours while I’m there with my daughter.”
The real challenge comes from teaching the dances to the younger children – some under age 5.
Many of them are new to the production.
“On the topic of working on choreography with the young ones, it’s a lot of work,” she said, stressing “a lot.”
“They’re also very loud, so just imagine one person talking over 30 little kiddos. You have to have patience and use your teacher voice for sure. A fitness microphone with a fanny pack may be in my future.”
Despite the grueling pace, Arena finds it worth the effort because it is not only an Arena family tradition, but one coming from the heart.
“We love it all. Yes, it’s challenging and my husband Tony is our rock because he knows how much our Nutcracker means to us all.
“And as a family, we do what we need to do to make it happen, not only for our kids, but for the rest of our Nutcracker family and the community. Honestly, what we get out if it is the magic of it all.”
Lewis has great praise for the intrepid Arena.
“This amazing woman…has been at every Saturday rehearsal since August, teaching the entire cast,” Lewis said. “She’s poured her heart and soul into this year’s Nutcracker. There wouldn’t be a Nutcracker if not for the love and passion and commitment from this one woman.”
In turn, Arena demurred and said Lewis deserves the credit for her passion and commitment.
This year the young dancers come from throughout the Valley to star in the holiday production.
It is an extraordinary production with more than 400 individually-designed costumes and headpieces, and special effects like snow falling in the theatre and a Christmas tree growing through the stage ceiling.
Following the Saturday and Sunday matinees, the audience is encouraged to come onto the stage to meet Santa – who arrives by sleigh – and sit with Clara on the Throne in the Land of Sweets.
Photographs can be taken with Santa Claus, Clara, the Nutcracker, Mouse King, Sugar Plum Fairy and other cast members who are also available to sign autographs as festive Holiday music plays.
“You won’t want to forget your camera,” said Lewis.