Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
I don’t remember going to The Nutcracker as a child.
My mother, who happened to be visiting from California for Thanksgiving, said we had seen it several times and even had grainy photos attesting to my love of ballet, but short of remembering the music, the nuances of the performance escaped me.
That’s probably why when Ballet San Antonio CEO Evin Eubanks asked me to guest star as Mother Ginger during one show of BSA’s annual run of the beloved holiday classic, I didn’t fully grasp what I was getting into. And I don’t necessarily mean from a performance standpoint, but really understanding Ballet San Antonio’s mission, the drive and dedication of its company, and the importance of the performing arts for the city of San Antonio.
I think I should mention, the role of Mother Ginger didn’t require any actual ballet, which was good because my plié, tour en l’air, and grande jeté were all fairly rusty if not outright nonexistent.
But it did give me a chance to see the 20-plus company members and Brenna Mulligan, a student who had nabbed the lead role of Clara, execute their craft from a vantage point I probably would not have had otherwise.
The Monday before my Saturday matinee performance at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, I spent several hours in the BSA’s clandestine dance studio. The place was a sweatbox as dancers ran through the entire ballet wearing holey – yet still dainty – ballet tights, leotards, ripped T-shirts, and dirty ballet shoes that often covered blisters the size of gumballs.
As a former college athlete and sports reporter, I had seen many practices and this was right up there. It was hard. There was starting and stopping and stern talking from co-choreographer Hailey Smith when positions were wrong, lines weren’t tight, and moves weren’t executed with the precision needed for a high-level performance. At one point, Smith, who scripted the performance with her husband, Easton, stopped the practice to lecture her dancers on the importance of learning all the roles and making themselves invaluable in order to earn new jobs or keep their current ones.
The dance company had endured two months of this, from 9 to 5 every day, while not only perfecting The Nutcracker but also preparing for Romeo and Juliet, which opens on Valentine’s Day.
And through it all on that Monday, I was mesmerized. I watched all 2 ½ hours intently, following the dancers’ feet, the precision, the beauty, and marveling at the sheer strength and muscle of the performers, some of whom had anguish, pain, and fatigue on their faces but didn’t let it come through in lifts and jumps.
It didn’t matter that I never got to work with the cast. Honestly, I didn’t want to be the spaz who ruined what was a mostly fluid final practice away from the Tobin stage. My 15 minutes of practice was courtesy of Head Ballet Master Cenezca Wessolossky Cortellan, who walked me through my steps, gave me direction for my over-the-top gesturing before and after eight children would emerge from my enormous hoop skirt for their dance number, and – most important – implored me to enjoy the moment.
I made my Saturday in The Nutcracker a family event. My mother, husband, and three young children were excited not just to see me but to see the ballet, especially my 3-year-old daughter, who wore a tutu, leggings adorned with ballet dancers, and a T-shirt depicting Clara and the Nutcracker Prince.
When I entered backstage, there were children everywhere. BSA invited more than 100 children of varying ages to participate in the performance. Several were clustered together, laughing, drawing, playing, and waiting for their turns onstage while others were being fitted with golden halos, remarking how pretty they looked and how excited and nervous they were.
I was more the former than the latter. While being part of the ballet is exciting, the best part of the Mother Ginger character is the makeup and the outfit. At the end of the first act, I put on yoga pants, a provided crop top T-shirt, and a fully padded size double-something bra to help fill out my colorful costume. Then I settled in for about 30 minutes of makeup application with artist Stacie Healy, who has been doing the Mother Ginger makeup for years and chronicled her offseason quest for the right palettes to bring out Mother Ginger’s gregarious nature.
My face was caked with powder foundation makeup, which was then layered with rouge on my cheeks and nose, magenta that covered my eyebrows, which were replaced by drawn-on replicas, and a gold liquid eye shadow, which I kinda want to work into my New Year’s Eve makeup repertoire.
After the application of some fake eyelashes – which accidentally glued my left eye shut – I was ready for the top part of the dress, which left my midriff bare. I was given brief instructions about how to put on the wig, which would be done after I entered the final part of my dress, and off we went down the hall, past my eight fictitious children, who still called me “Mommy” anyway.
The Mother Ginger skirt is a beast. I don’t know the exact dimensions, but it was probably 10-12 feet wide, anchored by a small platform, PVC pipe, and wheels, which, with the help of Production Manager Bennett Gunning, enabled me to maneuver across the stage. When it was time for Mother Ginger to make her grand appearance, I climbed onto the platform using only my leg muscles because my arms had to go in first. Healy handed me my wig and helped me adjust it, then Gunning ducked under my dress followed by eight small children and off we went.
The whole thing was admittedly a blur, though Cortellan later told me she was impressed I remembered all the gestures she taught me. I remember looking out into the crowd and seeing as many children in seats as were performing and it warmed my heart.
Following the performance, my fictitious eight children asked for a photo and it sort of brought everything into focus – the importance of the moment, the importance of this Nutcracker performance to the children participating and those watching, and how an entity such as Ballet San Antonio can bring a community together with a holiday staple.
It was clear that some of those children who were surrounding me with their smiles, both in front of the stage and behind it, could be the ones advancing San Antonio’s performing arts scene for decades to come, including my three children, who, even hours after the show, couldn’t stop talking about it.