The Making of Mother Ginger

Boston Ballet Staff

Photo credit: Liza Voll

From studio to stage, bringing Mother Ginger to life is a feat as large as her skirt.

Artist Drew Nelson with Wig and Make-up Artist Jason Allen

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Artist Drew Nelson with Wig and Make-up Artist Jason Allen

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Best recognized by her enormous hoop skirt from which her eight Polichinelle children emerge, the appearance of larger-than-life Mother Ginger in Act II of The Nutcracker never fails to delight. However, getting Mother Ginger stage-ready requires far more people than could ever fit under her voluminous skirt.

The process begins in the studio just a few weeks before opening night. The 50lb skirt is brought in from the warehouse where it is stored with sets and props during the off season and is set up on two tripods so that the Costume Shop staff can make any necessary repairs to it.

This particular Mother Ginger costume was built in-house and is original to Mikko Nissinen’s production. It consists of a large aluminum hoop, approximately 24 feet in circumference, with arched rods to ensure that the frame holds a rounded shape. Foam is inserted on top of the frame so that the bars do not show through. The entire frame is draped in almost 60 yards of fabric, digitally printed with scenes from an old European theater.  

Mother Ginger is typically played by the taller male members of the Company. For Artist Drew Nelson, who stands at just over 6’1", this is his third year performing the role of Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker. Fittingly, his earliest role was as a little Polichinelle boy, one of Mother Ginger’s children.

The dancers have only one rehearsal in studio working with the costume before going into the theater. Typically the dancers who are new to the role are given the chance to first practice walking around in the stilts. "Every year it gets easier and easier—it’s just like riding a bike," says Nelson.

Once they get their bearings, they are set up in an under-corset which has rigging to attach to the skirt, with two levels to adjust for the height of the dancer. Nelson reflects on his first time in the costume, "Once you get used to it, you just have to use the weight of the dress and not fight back against it. It’s really tough on your quads and your calves. Every time I jump off the stilts, I have to take a few minutes to stretch."  

Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor

Next, the Polichinelle children are brought in and instructed on how to behave under the skirt. One of the key pieces of advice—don’t get stepped on.

Nelson explains that he has no idea what the children are doing underneath the skirt, but fortunately he has never stepped on one. "Sometimes they will tug on your pant leg just to tease you a little bit, and then you just shake the dress at them and that’s fun."

Once in the theater, getting Mother Ginger ready backstage is a multi-departmental feat where everyone has to be in the right place at the right time. First, the dancer will get his makeup done, usually during the Snow Scene at the end of Act I. Then Wig and Make-up Artist Jason Allen faces the challenge of securing the foot-and-a-half tall wig with an intricate ship headpiece atop the dancer’s head. Assistant Wardrobe Supervisor Ezra Lovesky has the very important job of reminding the dancers to duck in doorways. "You don’t understand how tall you actually are – even before the stilts are on," he explains.

At the beginning of intermission, it’s time for the dancer to start getting dressed. Two people from the wardrobe staff assist with putting on the corset and stilts. Backstage, the skirt which is considered a prop (instead of a costume) is stored hanging high above on a pulley system. The dancer must stand in exactly the right spot on a large stool with his hands above his head protecting the wig as three members of the prop crew lower the skirt and attach it to his harness. Lastly, a member of the lighting crew must raise a set of lights to make room for the now over 8’ tall Mother Ginger—otherwise she wouldn’t be able to fit into the wings.

For Nelson, the entire process is worth it just to see the audience’s reaction. "It’s a lot of fun and it’s especially great to see the kids’ reaction to the whole production."

The Nutcracker

Nov 29–Dec 30, 2018

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director
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