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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Family time with “The Nutcracker” ballet

Lexi Ermeling as Clara in last year’s Ballet Etudes production.

Lexi Ermeling as Clara in last year’s Ballet Etudes production.

Arizona families can choose from several different versions of “The Nutcracker” this holiday season.

Every production is unique. Each company has its own set, costumes and lighting. Each uses different choreography and dancers. Some created additional roles so more kids have opportunities to perform. A few feature live music.

Based on an adaptation of German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the ballet first was choreographed by Marius Petipa for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” and premiered in Moscow in 1892.

“The Nutcracker” opens with a party scene at Clara’s home, where friends and family gather to celebrate near a giant Christmas tree. Clara’s mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer gives her a nutcracker doll that comes to life in Clara’s Christmas Eve dream, which forms the heart of the ballet.

Seeing this holiday tradition performed by various dance companies reminds us that stories can be told in countless ways.

Whatever production you choose, spending time with “The Nutcracker” makes memories that last a lifetime.

Ballet Etudes

The Porters (from top left): Helen (14), Rachel (7), Laura (6) and Molly (12) will perform for Ballet Etudes this year. Their mother, Louisa (top right), was in the company’s first production in 1986.

The Porters (from top left): Helen (14), Rachel (7), Laura (6) and Molly (12) will perform for Ballet Etudes this year. Their mother, Louisa (top right), was in the company’s first production in 1986.

Lexi Ermeling, of Gilbert, first saw “The Nutcracker” ballet when she was 5 years old. “It looked so magical,” she recalls. “I wanted to be Clara!”

Lexi, now 12, and Helen Porter, 14, of Mesa, are dancing the role of Clara in Ballet Etudes’ production of “The Nutcracker” this year, marking the Gilbert company’s 27th season performing the classic.

“I just started crying,” recalls Lexi, after learning she had achieved her childhood dream. She imagines roles she hopes to dance as a professional one day, including “Swan Lake” opposites Odette and Odile.

Porter’s mom Louisa danced in “The Nutcracker” that very first season and several seasons that followed. She returned in the role of Party Mom as a young parent, carrying 3-year-old Helen during the party scene. Afterwards, says Louisa, little Helen sat “enamored,” watching from the wings.

“I’ve danced on the same stages in some of the same costumes as my mom,” says Porter. “I really love my mom and I’ve always wanted to be like her.”

Siblings Molly, 12, Rachel, 7, and Laura, 6, also are dancing in Ballet Etudes’ “The Nutcracker” this year. “It’s a family thing,” quips Helen.

Ballet Etudes, which offers classes and strives to provide a professional ballet company experience for youth, is performing “The Nutcracker” at both Chandler Center for the Arts (Nov. 29-Dec. 8) and Mesa Arts Center (Dec. 13-15). The cast is comprised mostly of children and teens.

Like many dance companies, Ballet Etudes has developed unique traditions surrounding the ballet.

Cast members have given their nutcracker doll a behind-the-scenes name: Matthew. “We put Matthew to bed and lock him up after every rehearsal,” says Lexi.

The girls cast as Clara host a slumber party for dancers cast as party girls. “We watch videos and do crafts together,” says Lexi.

During some performances, adoptable dogs are featured in party-scene cameos on stage. Maricopa County Animal Care and Control will be on hand in the lobby during intermission to help families interested in pet adoption.

Some traditions involve audience members. During intermission, Ballet Etudes sells tickets for backstage tours that follow most performances. It’s a chance to go behind the scenes, meet several costumed cast members and pose for pictures. Ticket prices are $23-$28. or 480-782-2680; or 480-644-6500.

Ballet Arizona

Ballet Arizona’s performance of “The Nutcracker.”

Ballet Arizona’s performance of “The Nutcracker.”

Ballet Arizona, which has presented a version of “The Nutcracker” since 1986, performs the holiday favorite Dec. 6-24 at Symphony Hall in Phoenix.

For the second year, Ballet Arizona will perform Artistic Director Ib Andersen’s new choreography for “The Nutcracker.” Andersen, set designer Carey Wong and costume designer Fabio Toblini consulted for a year on its creation.

Three casts of professional dancers and 140 youth chosen through open auditions will give 24 performances this season, accompanied by The Phoenix Symphony.

The dance company holds a story time in the lobby 45 minutes before each performance. It’s easy to spot—look for the 20-foot-tall Christmas tree decorated with pointe shoes!

Opportunities to pose for a photo with the Sugar Plum Fairy before or after the performance and during intermission start at $15 and a boutique is filled with nutcrackers, books, ornaments and other holiday fare.

Ballet Arizona earns 30 percent of its annual income from “The Nutcracker,” which costs $1.8 million to produce and involves more than 300 people.

Even the budget for pointe shoes is staggering. Most pointe shoes last just one performance. The cast will use up to 300 pairs—costing up to $45,000—during the month of December.
Tickets prices are $25-$158. or 602-381-1096.

More ways to see “The Nutcracker”

Ahwatukee Foothills Ballet performs Dec 20-21 at Desert Vista High School Fine Arts Theatre in Phoenix. Following the Saturday matinee Santa Claus will be on on stage while Clara leads a “Jingle Bells” sing-along. Audience members are invited to join in for photos and autographs under falling snow. $15-35. 480-706-6040  or

Backers of Ballet performs Dec 14-16 at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix. $5 and an unwrapped toy to benefit Marine Corps Toys for Tots campaign. 602-485-5000.

Ballet & Friends performs Nov 29-Dec 1 at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix, with choreography that artistic director Slawomir Wozniak originally created for the National Ballet in Warsaw, Poland. $34.15-$49.30. 602-996-8000 or

Ballet Tucson performs Dec 14-15 at the University of Arizona’s Centennial Hall. $28-$56. 520-621-3341 or

Dancing in the Streets Arizona presents an adaptation of “The Nutcracker” titled “El Cascanueses” featuring live music by the Civic Orchestra of Tucson Dec. 14 and 15 at the Fox Theatre. $13-$35. 520-867-8489 or

Jataba Dance Troupe at Spisak Dance Academy in Glendale performs Dec 21 at North Canyon High School in Phoenix. A live pony will pull Clara’s sleigh on stage. $20 ($15 in advance). 602-547-0547 or

Moscow Ballet’s tour of the “Great Russian Nutcracker” performs at both Comerica Theatre in Phoenix Dec 12 ($27-$101.50; includes LiveNation fee) and the Fox Theatre in Tucson Dec 21 ($27.50-$175).

Southwest Youth Ballet’s performance Dec 20-21 at Higley Center for the Performing Arts features music by the Chandler Symphony Orchestra. $10-$30. 480-786-1155 or

Youth American Ballet Company performs Dec 14 at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert. $23-$28. 480-814-9232 or

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Lynn Trimble

Lynn Trimble, of Scottsdale, is the mother of three grown children, including two daughters who have danced in “The Nutcracker.” Find more of her writing at

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