A salute to Polichinelles, hoop skirts, and headlong falls
Amar Ramasar, New York City Ballet: Did the macarena. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
The first one-act Nutcracker in the U.S. was staged for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo by Alexandra Fedorova, who had danced in the original production in Russia. Her production informed The Nutcracker of her daughter, Irine Fokine (niece of Michel Fokine), whose Nutcracker ran annually in New Jersey from 1957 to 2009. Andrew Mark Wentink performed the role of Mother Ginger while still a student at the Irine Fokine School of Ballet in Ridgewood, NJ, and returned as a guest almost every year, amassing a record of more than 40 years in the role. Wentink is a dance archivist, researcher, and writer who also taught dance-related courses at Middlebury College for nearly a decade.
Mother Ginger and I have shared a long and affectionate relationship. After a literally shaky beginning, we soon learned to work together to project a vivacious and lovable personality. I have never looked upon my interpretation of the role as a “drag" act, or even as a man dancing en travesti. Almost from the outset I felt that Tchaikovsky's frolicsome music and Irine Fokine's choreography for the dance opened a portal for me to channel the spirit of this magical and endearing character.
Left: Andrew Mark Wentink: A 40-year relationship with the role. Photo courtesy Wentink.
Mother Ginger and I first met when I was 14 years old. In 1962 I was in my fourth year performing in Irine Fokine's full-length production of The Nutcracker. Tall for my age, I had danced the roles of the Butler and Mouse King. I was surprised, however, when my height qualified me for my next assignment: Mother Ginger. For three years I had watched older and much taller male dancers basically walk through the role. Their portrayals of Mother didn't impress me, but I loved the humor and vitality of the dance. Then Miss Fokine decided to take a chance on my promise as a character dancer and cast me as Mother Ginger.
It soon became clear in rehearsals that, while tall, I was too short to carry the heavy frame and voluminous costume without threatening to give a concussion to one or all of the Polichinelles under its skirt. So it was decided that I would have four-inch-high blocks strapped to my feet. This added another problem—the challenge of moving quickly and smoothly with these weighty encumbrances. In rehearsal, I struggled to remain balanced, keep on the music, and hit my marks until pausing downstage center to release the rambunctious Polichinelles from their confinement. My fear resulted in a leaden rendition, completely unsuitable to the dance.
In one of the earliest performances, Mother Ginger made her entrance shuffling steadily to keep up with the first 32 counts of the music, crossing at a diagonal from upstage left to downstage right, before backing up to center stage in 16. It had all the charm of a gown-bedecked dump truck. Halfway through the entrance, the straps on one of the blocks broke. I struggled to stay balanced but to no avail. I fell headlong onto the stage, the frame flipping over my head to reveal frilly pantaloons and six shocked Polichinelles frozen in their tracks. The live orchestra in the pit fell silent, the audience gasped, and there was an ominous stillness. At that moment, Mother Ginger took over. Within seconds, she flipped back the skirt, rose to her knees, and waved coyly to a delighted audience that was now in the palm of her white-gloved hands. The blocks were cast off, the music resumed, and Mother Ginger, now unbound like a genie from a bottle, completed the dance with unabashed flair.
From that point on over the next 50 years, whenever I channeled Mother Ginger, the opening section of the dance was done on half-toe, allowing a liberated Mother to move freely about the stage, interacting animatedly with generations of Polichinelles. With each passing year, Mother felt more license to improvise. She encouraged her Polichinelles to tease her. It paid off. “Mother Ginger and the Polichinelles" became a perennial favorite with audiences. Perhaps our greatest fan was the legendary Igor Youskevitch, who said it was the best Mother Ginger he had ever seen!
Above: Patrick Yocum, Boston Ballet: Demure but eccentric. Photo courtesy Boston Ballet.
Each time Mother Ginger and I joined forces, she revealed new dimensions of her rather unpredictable personality. In the 1970s, she inherited a fan used by Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity which seemed to imbue her with a flirtatious and seductive, but always tasteful, allure. In the early 1980s, Mother Ginger found herself costumed in more subdued pastel tones with hair transformed from flaming henna to softer blonde. In keeping with the new look, she projected a newfound mature modesty.
Moving on into the 21st century, Mother has lost none of her ebullient spirit, vibrant energy, and desire to please. She waddles onstage, focused on her needlepoint until startled, then delighted by the welcome laughter. She still whirls feverishly through the final measures of the dance, before wafting gently to her knee in humble reverence.
I have so many fond memories of working with Mother Ginger over the past half-century. But there is every chance that Mother and I will make our final reverence this December in Donna Irina Decker's staging of the Irine Fokine production of The Nutcracker in Oneonta, New York. After 51 years, Mother Ginger and I agree that we should gracefully retire our onstage partnership and allow younger dancers to channel and spread her magic.
The Skinny on Stilts
Corps de ballet, Boston Ballet
The role can easily turn into slapstick. Our new Nutcracker brings her down from comedic and makes her much calmer. Costume and set designer Robert Perdziola wanted her demure—the grande dame rather than a comedy routine.
The dress weighs 40 pounds including the metal frame. The front part pulls your shoulders forward. You have to keep very upright especially in entrances and exits, and yet you have to create the character using only the upper body. Mother Ginger has an eccentric streak; she can really whirl. You have to slow down and look at ease.
I had no previous experience with stilts. Taking big steps forward or back is risky—you've got children under you. They are far braver than I am. I'd never go under the dress of a stranger who may fall and crash and kill you!
Corps de ballet
American Ballet Theatre
During the whole time I'm out there, the Little Mouse is already under the dress. I can feel him doing loops, walking around my feet. If I do a move too quick the wind will whoosh the fabric under the rim of the dress, and he goes along and pushes the fabric back out.
Left: Kenneth Easter, American Ballet Theatre: Dealing with the Little Mouse (Justin Souriau-Levine). Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
In the very beginning it's just him under the dress, then I come out and I've lost the kids—Has anybody seen my little Polichinelles?—and they get inside the dress. I go to leave and they start running out and that's when the Little Mouse comes out and chases them around and makes like he's sliding into first base; that little dude steals the show.
The dress weighs 30 to 40 pounds. To get into it, three crew guys—not wardrobe people—lower the dress as part of the scenery, and they clip us into the shoulder harnesses. Then sleeves, gloves, and hat are attached. The biggest fear is the stilts breaking—they're just under four feet.
It can be stressful. But the first time I did Mama G, I got out onstage and realized that this ballet is about—and for—the kids.
Principal, New York City Ballet
I went a little crazy with Mother Ginger. Peter Martins would always say, “It's not a drag-queen role, so tone it down." I actually did the macarena once. I thought it was hysterical and everyone was dying. But I got into trouble. It has to be motherly, like you're taking care of the children.
You have to be so sensitive, having the children under you. It twice happened that I felt one of their feet, and rather than step on them, I dove into the wings.
Everyone jokes that I should do it for my retirement. My advice? Make friends with the Polichinelles because they can make things harder for you.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.