Three Desert Vista High School seniors who have danced a combined 40 years of Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet performances among themselves will be dancing their last – and possibly most challenging holiday ballet this month.
The Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet, produced by Dance Studio 111 owner Kimberly Lewis, will be performed twice on Dec. 14 with a Dec. 15 matinee at Desert Vista High School.
This year’s performances marks 20 years of Lewis’ magical and beautifully costumed gift to the community that stars dancers and actors ages 3 to 18 and a few adults.
More than 85 local children are involved in the ballet and stage crew.
The audience is in for a change-up in the traditional performance this year as the three graduating Desert Vista dancers are performing each of the three main roles over the course of the three presentations.
One of those dance roles that Avery Katharine Lewis, Bella Gregg and Allyson “Ally” Nash each perform was specially choreographed by Russell Clarke, associate professor of dance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.
The Scottish-born Clarke, who trained at the Royal Ballet School in London and danced with the Royal Ballet Company, was a former member of Ballet Arizona, where he received critical acclaim before accepting his position in Boston.
Because Kimberly Lewis wanted the seniors to experience their final year differently, she flew in Clark to choreograph the role of the Sugarplum Fairy.
“The choreography by Russell Clarke is very difficult and challenging,” Lewis said, echoing the three ballerinas. “Because these girls have grown up doing the Nutcracker, I wanted them to have one more time to shine on the stage in the three main Queen roles.”
Lewis cast the three Nutcracker Ballet veteran dancers in the main roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen and Butterfly Queen. Each admits learning the three parts in order to switch roles for each performance has been challenging.
But the intrepid ballerinas agreed it was worth the work.
Avery, Kimberly Lewis’ youngest daughter, had her Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet debut at age 1 when she toddled onstage as a Baby Mouse.
“I’ve been in every show since,” said Avery Lewis. “My favorite role was Snow Queen because it’s my favorite scene with the snow falling onstage. It’s also the last dance in the first act, and ends with a big finish and the spotlight on the Snow Queen.”
She described this year’s role switching as exciting, new and challenging.
“It’s definitely harder since we are rotating each show and have to learn multiple parts. We all get a little confused sometimes on which parts we are doing but we’re starting to get the hang of it. I love all the roles equally because they’re all so different and special in their own way,” Avery said.
“And the experience with Russell Clarke was very helpful and I’m grateful we had the privilege of such a talented teacher coming and putting his time and energy into creating something so beautiful for us,” she continued. “I learned a lot and was able to push my stamina through his encouragement and support.”
Bella’s first role was also as a Baby Mouse, and she’s been a part of the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet every year since but one.
“One year I decided I wanted a break from it, but I regretted that and came back the next year,” said Bella, who has appeared in 15 productions of the local Nutcracker production.
“This year is by far the most difficult one yet,” Bella said. “We have new choreography, and for each dance we have to learn several different placements so that when one dancer is queen, the other two are in the core. This year has pushed all three of us mentally and also physically and we have struggled a lot, but I think that in the end it will all be worth it.”
In 2012, she and her three siblings all participated in the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet.
Ally was 6 when she first took the stage as a Bon Bon, March Girl, Angel and Toy Soldier. Playing multiple roles is typical for younger actors and dancers.
“My favorite roles would have to be each Queen I’ve been. Each unique role has pushed me to be the best I can be in many different ways,” said Ally.
She said sharing roles this year is a final bonding tribute to a lifetime of friendship.
“I love being able to share and go through the same experiences with two of my closest friends that I grew up at the studio with. With sharing the same roles, we get to practice, support, and push each other,” said Ally.
“It’s also the hardest year because we have to remember the choreography, know when to switch roles, where their spots are at each role and much more,” added Ally, whose older sister Madi played four queen roles.
Ashleigh Griffin who graduates this year from Arizona College Preparatory, dances the role of Spanish Queen this year. This is her third year with the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet, though she has danced in other Nutcracker productions.
Griffin said her role as Spanish Queen is one of the most difficult ones she’s undertaken since starting with the ballet.
“I think it is a more difficult role than the roles I have been given in past years, especially due to how energetic and challenging the choreography is this year,” said Griffin, who has grandparents flying in from Texas for the first time to see her perform.
Griffin said she plans to continue dance in college. She has her eyes on Duke University or Northwestern.
“It’s hard to believe this will be my final performance. The time has gone by so fast, but I have great memories,” she said.
The three ballerinas graduating from Desert Vista on May 21, 2020, echoed Griffith’s sentiments.
“I do feel nostalgic because it has been so many years, but it also hasn’t hit me yet that is the last time. It probably won’t hit me until the show actually happens,” said Avery.
Added Bella: “I know I will miss everything about this Nutcracker experience after it’s over and after school this year, I plan on continuing to dance, hopefully for a college dance team.
For Ally Nash, dancing in her 11th and last Ahwatukee Foothill Nutcracker Ballet, is akin to bidding adieu to childhood.
“This being my last year, I do feel very nostalgic because the Nutcracker Ballet has been my whole childhood, and it’s such a huge part of me,” confessed Nash.
Kimberly Lewis is looking forward to the presentations, stating, “What will be so enjoyable this year is that every show will be so different. People will want to attend all three shows just to see what each girl brings to the role she is performing in.”
The three ballerinas are also on the Dance Studio 111 Company Team and Desert Vista’s varsity dance line and senior elite dance team.
It won’t be just the graduating seniors feeling nostalgic when the curtain comes down on the 2019 Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet.
“The Nutcracker has been a very big part of our lives, and our family has enjoyed watching the girls grow and take on new roles and challenges,” said Bella’s mother, Linda Gregg, adding:
“I cry each time I think of this being her last, but I feel blessed that we have such beautiful memories,” said Bella Gregg’s mother, Linda. “This year will be very emotional for me to watch as she dances her three favorite roles.”
Lewis has her own reason to be wistful this year.
“All three of my children have grown up doing the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker Ballet,” she said. “This will be such a surreal moment for me when Avery takes her final bow because this is the last Nutcracker I get to be a mom and watch my own daughter being part of the magic – such beautiful memories of 20 years of Nutcrackers, not as the producer but as a mother.”
As in years past, following both 2 p.m. matinees, the audience is encouraged to sing “Jingle Bells” as snow falls inside the theater and Santa arrives on his sleigh. All the show’s Queens, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker then come onstage to sign autographs and be photographed with fans. Free photos can also be taken with Clara on her stage throne.