November 30, 2013

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

Patrick Yocum

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!

Kenneth Easter

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.

Amar Ramasar

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.