She is nearly 10-feet tall, with a circus-striped skirt that’s 10-feet wide and a bonnet that seems to be reaching to the heavens. And she stops the show, every night.

Share story

She is nearly 10-feet tall, with a circus-striped skirt that’s 10-feet wide and a bonnet that seems to be reaching to the heavens. And she stops the show, every night.

Mother Ginger, in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” is the very definition of a crowd pleaser. In fact, she brings her own crowd, the Polichinelles: eight young dancers from the PNB School, who arrive onstage concealed under that stadium-size skirt (which conceals an aluminum frame) and emerge to perform a charming vignette.

“It’s kind of like moving a boat,” said PNB corps de ballet member Miles Pertl, one of eight (plus an understudy) company dancers performing the role this season. (The production opens Friday, Nov. 24, and runs through Dec. 28.) “You’re on stilts, and (the skirt) is sixty pounds, everything just kind of swings and does its own thing. You don’t have that much control over it. You just kind of cross your fingers and do your best.”

The character is still a relative newcomer to PNB audiences: The company’s long-running previous incarnation of “Nutcracker,” choreographed by Kent Stowell and designed by Maurice Sendak, didn’t include Mother Ginger. But she’s long been a staple of numerous productions of the ballet across America – most notably Balanchine’s, originally choreographed for New York City Ballet in 1954.


George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’

Pacific Northwest Ballet, Nov. 24-Dec. 28; $29-$190 (206-441-2424 or

So, what’s under that enormous skirt? A tall male dancer — all of PNB’s Mother Gingers stand at least 6 feet — walking on approximately 3-foot-tall stilts. “They’re drywall stilts,” explained Joshua Grant, a PNB soloist who originated the role in PNB’s 2015 premiere of the ballet, and will dance it again this year. “You can actually walk normally in them, without the skirt on. The whole base moves with your foot. It’s actually pretty secure; you’ve got a pretty big platform to stand on.”

But add that skirt — hooked onto the dancer around his rib cage, via a back-brace-like harness with suspenders — and things get challenging. “You can’t walk forward,” Grant said, noting that doing so creates a risk of tripping on the skirt. “You can only walk sideways.” Add eight sidestepping Polichinelles underneath and, “It’s a squish,” Grant said.

“You get to know the kids really well by the end,” said Pertl, laughing. (And yes, one of them got stepped on once. Mother Ginger still feels terrible about it.)

Despite the challenges, both Grant and Pertl said they love performing the role — and not just because, as Pertl noted, it allows them to go onstage in jeans and boots. “It’s the only role where you get to go on stage and you’re not really given a lot to do, so you get props and you get to make it up on the fly and act it out,” said Pertl. The props, which include a mirror, a tambourine, a fan and a parasol, are attached to the costume with ribbons.

Grant, who has some experience with inch-long eyelashes (he danced for five years with the all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte-Carlo), said they’re directed to keep things tasteful. “Having worked in drag, I know it’s really easy for things to go crass, and they don’t want it to go that way. They don’t want us, you know, powdering our underarms or fixing our boobs, stuff like that. They still want it to be kind of ladylike. Other than that, we’re pretty free to do whatever we want.”

Each Mother Ginger can shape his own approach to the role. Grant said he’s pretty consistent. “I have a story that I tell, from beginning to end, in my characterization,” he said. Pertl likes to change it up, trying different things.

Both agree that the trick is to have fun with it. “You have to let go of your inhibitions a little bit, kind of act the fool,” said Grant. “You have to put yourself in a situation where you’re going to be a little embarrassed.”

As always, practice makes perfect — almost. “There are just little things that we get better at,” said Grant, “like finding where you need to put yourself, and where you need to put your feet. It doesn’t work all the time. We’re definitely teeter-tottering back there.”

If you’re in the “Nutcracker” audience this season, tear your gaze away for a moment from those dancing Polichinelles and watch Mother Ginger, looking over them with fond indulgence. She’s having a wonderful time — and so, in all likelihood, is the dancer performing her. “It’s a super-awesome role,” said Pertl. Grant agrees. “It’s a magical moment.”

Correction: A photo caption has been updated with the correct name of the corps de ballet dancer — Henry Cotton — pictured.