From the bold, bonnet-like headpiece and cascading russet curls, to the massive, 85-pound skirt that hides eight little polichinelles, Mother Ginger's singular qualities make her divertissement one of the most memorable moments in Act II of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker®. Though every role in the Company's vast repertory relies on both the careful coaching of repertory directors and the mentorship of practiced performers to carry on from generation to generation, that of Mother Ginger presents unique challenges—both physically and creatively—for the new dancer. Advice from Gingers past, a watchful and appreciative eye, and a readiness to go all-out are essential to delighting new audience members every holiday season.
We eavesdropped on a conversation between Soloist Preston Chamblee, who has donned Mother Ginger's hefty bustle for several years, and Corps de Ballet Member Mckenzie Bernardino Soares, who has just debuted this month, as they discussed what makes this role so special both onstage and off.
MCKENZIE BERNARDINO SOARES: I started in The Nutcracker when I was eight years old. I was a soldier and danced in the party scene for a few years. Once I got into the Company, I did Hot Chocolate corps. And this year, I started Mother Ginger.
PRESTON CHAMBLEE: I got into this Nutcracker production as an apprentice with the Company; I think that was 2014. I started off, as you do when you're an apprentice in The Nutcracker, with the party scene and the battle scene, and then a little bit of corps Hot Chocolate. I believe I ran that track for about three seasons, and then I was called to Mother Ginger, and I've been doing it ever since. I believe this is somewhere around five or six seasons of Mother Ginger for me.
The repertory director for Mother Ginger is Rosemary Dunleavy. She gave me the guidelines and the bare bones of what I was supposed to do, but told me, “You have to create it on your own a little bit.” I learned Mother Ginger most from watching other people do it and gaining inspiration from the different dancers. When I got into the Company, [former NYCB Dancers] Andrew Scordato, Joshua Thew, and [Soloist] Aarón Sanz were dancing Mother Ginger. I'd also seen [Soloist] Harrison Coll and [Corps de Ballet Member] Alec Knight. I would watch, and when there was something funny or something I liked, I’d think, “Maybe I can pull some inspiration from that.” And then you start to gain little tips and tricks about it along the way from doing it for so long.
MCKENZIE: I also think I learned from watching everyone do it this season, as well as growing up watching it. And you really took me under your wing, which was very nice of you. You went through the whole thing with me and made sure I knew everything I was doing and that I was confident before I went onstage, which I'm very appreciative of. So I owe a lot to you, really.
I don't think I've done anything that involves any character work yet, so this was my first real role of that kind. It’s been so fun to work on that aspect of performing. Obviously, you portray a character when you dance, but in a role like Mother Ginger, it's totally about the expressions you’re making and the story you're telling.
PRESTON: Mother Ginger was one of my first big acting roles; there isn't much dance to it—it really is based on the acting. It launched this trajectory for me, as I'm doing a lot of acting roles with the Company now.
You've got the giant skirt on, you've got all the props, and you have this giant wig and headpiece, and what you have to use the most is your face, which, in comparison to all these things, is tiny, so you have to over-exaggerate your facial expressions. Suzy [Alvarez] and Grace [Arias] in the hair and makeup department do such an amazing job helping to exaggerate your look.
This year, I was trying to pull from a sort of British panto-Dame vibe, very overly exaggerated. Nutcracker is a family show, and Mother Ginger in particular is one of the roles that is centered on the children. You are playing to the kids in the audience. Of course, the skirt is impressive for all audience members, but it’s one of the parts that a lot of the children remember—they remember Marie, the Mouse King, Mother Ginger, and the Sugar Plum Fairy, because those are the exaggerated, recognizable characters. So, the acting is very important. I'm probably the most campy of all the Mother Gingers. We all have our different niches; some of us like to play it more pretty, or someone will play it big and campy, someone will play it more 21st Century, some will play it very motherly. Some will play it very sweet. I feel like you're very sweet.
MCKENZIE: I've been trying to find how I will be. I think the more I do it, I'll find a version. But it's nice just to see everyone do it and pick certain things you want to do to bring into your own performance.
PRESTON: There are so many children dancing in The Nutcracker, too, but I think the party scene and Ginger are where you're the most interactive with the children. I think the kids have such a blast, and that makes you feel an added sense of your value in their journey. It sends them on this lifetime trajectory of loving dance and remembering these experiences. And you see them grow up. When I was an apprentice, one of our friends, Rommie [Tomasini], was Marie. And now she's in the corps de ballet. I remember interacting with her and thinking she was the funniest little girl, and now she's here. You build this bond with some of the children, then you see them go through the School, and some of them get into the Company. It’s this really nice, nurturing, full circle.
MCKENZIE: When I’m working with the children, I try to keep in mind that they're always going to remember this moment. I try to act my best and be kind, because it truly is going to follow them for the rest of their lives—it did with me, so I know how special it is for them.
When you’re watching Mother Ginger, you think you just get to be cute and pretty and have fun. But there are so many things you have to think about. You have to be at a certain place when you’re onstage and before you go out, or you're going to hit something and not make it. And there are so many props. And walking with the stilts, that took a little practice. There are so many intricacies.
PRESTON: In the scope of every Ginger's journey, there are a couple of times when you trip on the skirt or the children will step on it, or sometimes you step on it yourself; or as the run goes on, you get a little bit confident and you start moving around a little more, and then one show you move a little too far… It never gets to "ultimate catastrophe," but there is that moment when your heart is falling into your stomach, and you’re thinking, "This is it, this is going to be it," and you freak out for a second, but then you pull yourself back together.
The one moment that caught me off guard was during my first run, I think it was my third or fourth show. I felt like I had gotten all my props, I did all my things, and I felt really good. Everything went really smoothly. As I was going offstage, the audience started clapping—and clapping really loudly. I thought, “Oh, this feels important. They actually enjoyed what I'm doing.” We're used to dancing roles that are so physically demanding, and that’s something that the audience appreciates. Sometimes, when you do an acting role, you feel as though it's less important because you're not doing as much physically. When the audience started clapping for me before I had even gotten offstage, I felt this sense of validation; it made me very proud to be doing Mother Ginger. I know that our Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford really loves the role because he's had a whole journey as well; he did Polichinelles as a child, and then he did Mother Ginger in the Company. I know he really loves it and appreciates it. The pride and sense of accomplishment that I felt right out of the gate made me really enjoy it.
My favorite thing about Ginger is getting to spend so much time in the hair and makeup room with Suzy and Grace. We don't get to spend a lot of time with them, unless we’re doing a big character role with a lot of hair and makeup. They work so hard and are such behind-the-scenes heroes for us. Getting to spend so much time with them through the holiday season is one of the greatest gifts to me.
MCKENZIE: I completely agree. I've only done two shows, but during my second show, when I was working the tambourine, people were hollering in the audience. It makes it all worth it, that people appreciate it. It wouldn’t be The Nutcracker without Mother Ginger.
PRESTON: It's true. Absolutely.
The Nutcracker is such a special time for everyone, with it being the holiday season, but it is a really special time for us as a Company. With how big the show is, and how many moving parts it has, and how many character roles there are, it's a team effort. It really takes the entirety of us to get this show going. We become even more of a family during Nutcracker. Throughout the rest of the season, there are some periods when, because of scheduling, you don't see a certain part of the Company, or you never have rehearsals with some dancers, you never have shows together. But for Nutcracker, a good 80% of us are in the theater from 10:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night. We have to get each other through it, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. The camaraderie and relationships that form, the games that we play—we all decorate our dressing rooms with stockings and lights and mistletoe. And Mother Ginger is something that I always look forward to. And, to get to share any tips and tricks that I've gathered with you—I feel like Grandmother Ginger passing the role on to Mother Ginger. It's very special to me, and you are wonderful as a human and as a dancer and as a Ginger. So it's really special to get to share this with you.
MCKENZIE: I grew up with you, in a way. I was in the production as a child, when you were starting out in the Company. It's such a full-circle moment to be in this position now and to have you pass the role on to me. And it's been a really special Nutcracker because of that. During my first dress rehearsal as Ginger, [Associate Children’s Repertory Director] Arch Higgins, who I've worked with since I was a child, came up to me and said, “Mckenzie, weren't you a soldier just a few years ago?” It really puts into perspective how cool it is to do what we're doing and to be in this position. We're just so grateful.
PRESTON: Who else gets to be on stilts, in drag, in the David H. Koch Theater during the holidays? Does it get any better?