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.
If you love Michael Jackson, you'll love this news: A pre-Broadway run of the MJ jukebox musical will hit Chicago this fall.
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough boasts more than 25 MJ hits and has set its premiere for October 29. As previously reported, Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph the new musical, while Lynn Nottage pens the book.
Gallim will honor Frederic M. Seegal and Limor Tomer at its February 12 Force of Nature gala. Both honorees have a close relationship with the Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe, so it's fitting that they'll be recognized at Gallim's first-ever gala.
Seegal, Dance Media's CEO, previously served as Gallim's board chairman. He fondly recalls his first encounter with the company: After Gallim brought down the house at its 2010 Fall For Dance performance, Seegal was immediately convinced that he had to support the company and connected with artistic director Andrea Miller that night.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
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From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
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.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.