All “Nutcracker” photos by Mark Frohna Photography
The ‘Mother’ of All Holiday Dance Costumes
Bringing an Unforgettable “Nutcracker” Character To Life
Their unique version of “The Nutcracker” was already a hit with audiences, but as COVID regulations loosened near the end of 2021, the staff at Brio Studios in Brookfield, Wis., wanted to take their holiday show to the next level.
Not only would dancers perform without masks, enabling them to express a full range of emotions on their faces, but the studio was planning to add a new character that was sure to give the entire production an infusion of energy.
Amber Robertson, Brio’s ballet director and “Nutcracker” choreographer, was elated when she found out: Her “Land of Sweets” piece would get a whole lot sweeter with the purchase of Art Stone’s Mother Ginger costume.
“We’ve been doing ‘The Nutcracker’ for four years, and we always did the Mother Ginger dance, but without Mother Ginger, because we didn’t have the big, elaborate costume,” Amber says. “So, we just did it as a group piece with clowns. The kiddos would just come out and do tumbling and acro and stuff like that. But I think we always wanted to get to a place where we could do the whole big Mother Ginger piece, because it’s so iconic and people kind of expect it when they come to see a ‘Nutcracker’ show.
“We were always looking for ways to change things up, make it different, make it bigger and better and really excite people. And this past year, we finally decided, ‘We’re going all in. We’re buying this Mother Ginger costume. We’re making the investment.’ Our productions have continued to grow, and we’re getting more kids involved and more people seeing the show, so this was the next step in that process.”
Amber’s audience was already well-acquainted with Mother Ginger when Brio Studios unveiled her, as a welcome surprise, during their 2021 holiday spectacular. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of “The Nutcracker,” here’s a quick crash course on one of the show’s biggest standout characters.
Who is Mother Ginger?
Although the Sugar Plum Fairy technically rules the Land of Sweets in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet, “The Nutcracker,” Mother Ginger is a scene-stealing centerpiece of the show’s second act.
With her curly white wig, dramatic makeup and gigantic pastel-colored skirt, Mother Ginger looks like a mix between a Candyland queen and a circus clown. She looms as large as a big-top tent over the other performers, shuffling on stage with her “Polichinelles,” or children, hiding under her skirt. As the children emerge to dance and tumble around, Mother Ginger hams it up in the background, playfully scolding her rambunctious little ones. The awe-inspiring spectacle delights both Clara, the show’s lead character, and the folks in the audience.
Mother Ginger is literally “larger than life,” and performers who play her must balance on stilts throughout the entire act. Due to the size of the character and the physical demands of the costume, a male cast member typically plays Mother Ginger in professional “Nutcracker” productions. At Brio Studios, the honor went to a female staffer, who immediately fell in love with her role.
“She basically told me she will quit if I ever give the role to anyone else,” Amber says with a laugh.
Although Amber and her staff didn’t feel comfortable putting a younger dancer in the Mother Ginger outfit, the costume was a cast favorite from the moment it arrived at the studio.
“All the kids literally wanted to be hiding under the skirt,” Amber says. “The kids were so stoked to be hiding under the skirt and pop out. Luckily, the costume shipped really early and we were able to practice, because this isn’t something you can just go into a dress rehearsal with, having no practice. So once the costume came in, we rehearsed at least six or seven times with our staff member getting in and out of the skirt and walking around on stilts, so we could gameplan for any weird things that might happen and make sure she wasn’t stepping on children or anything like that. We wanted everyone to feel comfortable with the process.”
Amber says the only snafu her team had with Mother Ginger came during the show’s final curtain call, when one of Mother Ginger’s stilts slipped off her foot while she was taking a bow.
“That was exciting,” Amber says, jokingly. “Luckily, it happened during bows, so we were just able to close the curtain and get her down. It was definitely wild. But that is why we knew we could not put a child in the costume. It needs to be an adult doing that role.”
The Making of the Mother Ginger Costume
Just as each dance studio puts its own spin on Mother Ginger’s choreography, every Mother Ginger costume is a truly unique work of art. When an order comes in, Art Stone’s production team works together over several weeks to construct the multifaceted costume from scratch, using a different combination of materials every time.
Head seamstress Concetta Gravano hunkers down in her workshop, surrounded by rolls of satin ribbon, cascades of candy pink and aqua tricot, and an assortment of other specialty fabrics, ready to craft the colorful bustier and massive hoop skirt. She uses nine different materials for Mother Ginger’s bustier, which features a cotton lining, elaborate brocade bodice and taffeta sleeves dripping with fancy lace trim.
Mother Ginger’s seven-tiered skirt requires more than 118 yards of tricot, and a whopping 29 yards go into making the skirt’s bottom ruffle, the portal through which Mother Ginger’s children will emerge on stage.
When finished, the skirt stretches from the floor to the ceiling of Concetta’s sewing room. The team then cuts plastic tubing — a total of 35 yards — to feed through each row of the skirt and bring the entire look to life.
As previously mentioned, the enormity of the skirt poses a challenge for the performer in the costume, who must maneuver around the stage on stilts without toppling over or tramping on one of the children. What’s also challenging is finding a place to store the costume in the off-season. At Brio Studios, Amber has personally “adopted” the costume so she can ensure its safety.
“The plastic hoops we have in our kitchen/storage area, where we can tuck them in the corner, and students aren’t supposed to be in there,” Amber says. “I have the fabric pieces, the skirt and the top, at my house. It literally lives with me, so I am the only one to blame if something happens to it, and there won’t be any children getting their hands on it.”
Mother Ginger’s Impact on a “Nutcracker” Performance
When asked if the whole Mother Ginger experience lived up to expectations, both on and off stage, Amber didn’t hesitate.
“It was magical!” she says. “We loved it. We honestly had so much fun with it, and it was so exciting. Kids loved it. Parents loved it. It was a hoot. It was amazing.
“Having Mother Ginger in the piece changed the entire outlook, because like I said, we always just called it ‘Clowns,’ and it added an extra element of fun and surprise to have kids popping out from under this giant skirt, and to have this giant character chilling in the background doing the traditional Mother Ginger things. It was super fun, and I think it really changed everyone’s perspective on the piece and made it brand new.”
Would Amber recommend that other ballet directors add Mother Ginger to their “Nutcracker” production?
“I guess I would say, if you’re going to do ‘Nutcracker,’ you’ve just got to commit and go for it,” she says. “If you have a venue that’s big enough where you can get this costume on stage along with the dancers, everything about it is so much fun. From the kids to the staff to the audience, everyone loves Mother Ginger. It’s such an iconic character, and if you want to do something different with your ‘Nutcracker’ production, this is an easy way to do something different.
“So like I said, just go for it and embrace it, because even though it’s hard work and weird things might happen that you don’t expect, that’s part of the fun of a live performance.”
All photos of Brio Studios’ “Nutcracker” production were taken by Mark Frohna Photography and provided to us by Amber Robertson. Art Stone would like to thank Amber for sharing her Mother Ginger experience with us; you can find her studio on the web at https://www.briostudiosco.com and on Instagram at @brio.brookfield.
Our Mother Ginger costume is available by special order only. To take a closer look at this one-of-a-kind design or explore our other options for unique holiday dance costumes, please check out our 2022-2023 Curated Holiday Collection or contact our Customer Service team for more information.