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Magic in the Making

Behind the Scenes at Arizona Nutcracker

Of all the holiday traditions, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker is one that generations have included in their Christmas celebrations. There are many opportunities to see this production in Arizona, but perhaps not one quite as meaningful as the Arizona Nutcracker, formerly the Ahwatukee Foothills Nutcracker.

Now in its 23rd year of production, the Arizona Nutcracker has been rebranded to emphasize the fact that it’s open to all ballet students across the state. Kimberly Lewis, who runs auditions and rehearsals out of her Ahwatukee dance studio, Studio 111, is a seasoned director. She speaks excitedly of all the students, ages 3-18 years old, who participate in the Arizona Nutcracker every year.

Lewis explains that she has always believed it was important to expose younger children to a professional ballet production. “When I started my dance studio, I noticed that many other studios hire professional dancers for the major roles. But when I saw the talent of the younger children, I thought it would be special to have a Nutcracker that they could relate to.” She adds, “As far as I can find, we are the only Nutcracker that uses a cast entirely of children.”

“Everyone who auditions is cast in something,” Lewis says. “Even if they don’t have a lot of experience, we teach them. It’s not just coming and learning your role, it’s an educational experience.”

After she has cast everyone, the older dancers who get the roles of different “queens” and the lead role of Clara are welcomed to the cast with surprise yard signs outside of their homes. Then, they participate in a special ceremony passing on Clara’s crown and the Sugar Plum Fairy’s crown. The performer from the previous year formally gives her crown to the new person cast in that role. “We try to make it really special,” Lewis says.

Lewis recognizes not only the dancers’ sacrifice of many weeknights and weekends to rehearse for this elaborate show, but also those of the parents who give up their time in driving their dancers to their commitments. She says, “I put on a Queen Mother’s Brunch to celebrate the mothers. The girls write their mother a letter and read them at the brunch, thanking them for everything they have done.”

Lewis’s emphasis during the rehearsal process is comradery and bonding. “We have a strict no cell phone policy during rehearsals,” she explains, “and we keep journals throughout the rehearsal process.” The dancers write about their experience that day, and then they regularly share something they admire about another dancer. The older dancers mentor and befriend the younger ones.

Right before the weekend of performances, Lewis hosts the Royal Queen Dinner, an elaborate sit-down dinner to acknowledge all the work that those ballerinas have put into their demanding roles.

It takes a lot of backstage talent to make the Arizona Nutcracker come to life. Madi Nash, the artistic director, and Jordan Hill, one of the choreographers, grew up doing this same production, even dancing the roles of the queens, and now they’re bringing their on-stage experience to the backstage. Ashley Jerger, another choreographer, works hard to help the dancers look their best on stage.

Lewis is excited to announce that there will be some new costumes on stage this year to emphasize the rebranding of the production. “Every costume is hand designed, handmade, and I personally rhinestone the queens’ costumes myself,” Lewis says. Many of the sets used for the 23 years of the production’s run were built by Lewis’s father. He drove them out to Arizona from his home in Nebraska. Jeff Rollins and Corey Quinn, part of the tech crew helping with sets and lighting, have been with Lewis for all 23 years. “They are spectacular and very talented,” Lewis says.

In addition to its main weekend of performances, the Arizona Nutcracker traditionally participates in some charity events. Snippets of the show can be seen at Arizona Grand Open House, Tempe Marketplace Lighting of the Tree Ceremony, and at Cityscape.

The main weekend features three shows, all held at Madison Center for the Arts. The matinee shows are particularly special. Following the performance, they set up a Candyland vignette, Santa arrives, and the various queens are available for photos and autographs with audience members. Lewis wants to emphasize that this show is made for families, by families. With a shorter run-time than most ballets, even the youngest audience members can enjoy a performance.

If you’re interested in attending the Arizona Nutcracker, performances are Saturday, December 17 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday, December 18 at 1 p.m All shows are at Madison Center for the Arts, and tickets can be purchased through More information can be found at, or on Instagram @AZNutcracker.