Young Navajo dancers shine at Flagstaff's annual "The Nutcracker"

Fayelorea Knoki Arviso (second from left) performs as a soldier in this year's production of the Nutcracker by the NAU Community Music and Dance Academy and Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra. (Wendy Howell/NHO)

Fayelorea Knoki Arviso (second from left) performs as a soldier in this year's production of the Nutcracker by the NAU Community Music and Dance Academy and Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra. (Wendy Howell/NHO)


Fayelorea Knoki Arviso, 13, and her sister Sophia Knoki Arviso, 10, are Navajo ballet dancers who recently participated in the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra and NAU Community Music and Dance Academy production of the Nutcracker. (Wendy Howell/NHO)

FLAGSTAFF — Pure, grand-scale magic is the only way to describe the community of Flagstaff’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

One of the most beloved and widely performed classical ballets, set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, NAU’s production of “The Nutcracker,” returned Dec. 2 and 3 to Ardrey Auditorium.

In what has become a feast for the senses with an inspiring collaboration, NAU Community Music and Dance Academy and the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra have created a program that has become a highlight of the winter holiday season.

With three performances, young ballet dancers weave their way in and out of the stage in symbiotic movement with the orchestra.

The story of "The Nutcracker" is based on the E.T.A. Hoffmann fantasy story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," about a girl who befriends a nutcracker that comes to life on Christmas Eve and wages a battle against the evil Mouse King.

At the conclusion of the battle, the Prince accompanies Clara on a tour of his kingdom with the many dancers representing sweet items for the palette such as chocolate, tea and candy.

The set pieces and ensembles in “The Nutcracker Ballet” are intricate and include movements such as the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Spanish Dance, Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance, Dance of the Reed Flutes, Tarantella and Final Waltz.

Under the direction of Andrew Needhammer, dozens of ballet dancers who train under the Royal Academy of Dance at NAU participate in the program.

This year’s production included two young Navajo dancers, Fayelorea Knoki Arviso, 13, and her sister Sophia Knoki Arviso, 10, of Flagstaff.

Both girls are members of the NAU Dance Academy, and despite their young ages, have been involved in numerous ballet productions over the years, including the Nutcracker.

“One year I was a mouse, and the second year I was party girl,” Sophia said. “I missed the ginger and angels because of COVID.”

Fayelorea has also participated in the Nutcracker for several years, along with other performances such as "Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake." This year she was a soldier and a Russian Trepak. Sophia was a Spanish Chocolate.

As the children age through the program, they move up into different roles, said Malory Donahue, community program coordinator for the NAU Community Music and Dance Academy.

“Our youngest students in 'The Nutcracker' are preprimary students, and they are the tiny sheep. Each year the dancers get a new role,” she said. “They continue to move up until they get to the soloist positions, which are the oldest dancers.”

Donahue said older high school students typically fill the positions of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Snowqueen, the Mouse Queen and the Toy Soldier.

Fayelorea and Sophia train two to three days per week with the dance academy, as well as several days on their own.

“All of the girls practice together,” said Liv A’ndrea Knoki, the girls’ mother. “But they also get the freedom to work on their own, which determines how far they go.”

When asked why they want to dance, both girls said they enjoy the practices and performances.

“I feel like my body really craves it,” Fayolerea said. “It craves the movement.”

“I like the movement and the music,” Sophia added.

Fayelorea is a student at Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy and has many friends at the school. She said one of the challenges of participating in ballet is meeting new people.

“Some people are not as friendly, sometimes it’s hard to fit in,” Fayelorea said.

“I don’t know if it’s my personality or my skin color, but sometimes that’s hard for me too,” Sophia said.

Knoki said the girls have encountered challenges in dance, but she continues to encourage the girls to pursue their dreams of ballet.

“I tell them this is for you, their dad and I present it to the girls as an opportunity to learn something about themselves,” she said. “We try to remind them if they want to do this, they have to push past the hard parts.”

Knoki said in addition to dance, they encourage the girls to pursue other activities. They have both been involved with soccer, kung-fu and chorus.

“Our evenings our crazy, and I was unsure with all these activities, but they like it,” Knoki said.

On the weekends, the family drives out to the Navajo Reservation to visit family in Ganado and Fort Defiance.

“We used to live in Mesa and it was a five hour drive to see family,” Knoki said. “When we got the opportunity to move here, we said ‘let’s do it.’”

Knoki said they especially try to visit family on the reservation for special occasions such as birthday parties.

Fayelorea and Sophia said they enjoy visiting family.

“They support us a lot,” Fayelorea said. “They think its (ballet) is really cool. They are really excited that we are doing ballet.”

Fayelorea and Sophia were introduced to ballet by Knoki, who also danced with the NAU Dance Academy.

“My mom and I traveled a lot, but we always had a home here,” Knoki said. “I’ve hung on to my last pair of pointe shoes and I have them hanging at home. When the girls were little they would take them down and put them on and play with them. That’s probably where it began.”

Donahue said the NAU dance program is designed to be a community program. She said that most of the students are from Flagstaff, but they have also had students from Williams, Page, Tuba City and other areas around northern Arizona.

The dance program begins with primary classes and students can progress through the classes as they improve.

Ballet dancers may have the opportunity to take part in productions throughout the year, including Festival of Science, "The Nutcracker," a spring performance and various other collaborations and competitions.

“We have a spring performance we host in May at Ardrey,” Donahue said. “That is less of a production and not in conjunction with FSO (Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra). We can showcase a lot more of what they are learning in their syllabus with RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) – it’s a celebration of our academy.”

Donahue said the dance program recognizes the financial challenge for many families to participate and said the school continues to look at opportunities to assist the students.

“All of 'The Nutcracker"'proceeds go toward funding scholarships and allowing us to pay for costumes and auditorium fees,” she said. “That way we don’t have to pass that along to our students. With the fundraisers, we can cover things like that. We try to keep the performance fees low.”

In addition, the program has scholarship opportunities for older students whose fees are typically higher.

“Our older students can obtain a dance-work scholarship,” she said. “They come in an extra hour per week and are assigned to help our teachers with the younger dance classes. But this is a point we have been trying to address for a while, we have been in conversations with NAU about how to bring in more scholarships and other ways we can offer help to our students.”

Donahue said the academy has found its summer classes and camps have been successful for reaching students in the area.

“We are reaching out to schools and inviting them to come out for a week long camp,” she said. “We are looking for a more accessible introduction to ballet for those students who might be interested. We’ve always had a fairly diverse group of students, and that’s one of our goals - to make the program more accessible to everyone. That is the point of being a community music and dance academy.”

Anyone interested in the program can visit Registration for summer programs will begin in April.

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