Hoop Dreams

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

db5049_1741cc93027c4c6cbf6421c4ad11a820(Terrific photo above is ©Fritz Olenberger)

About a year and a month ago, I was driving my 13 year-old daughter and her longtime ballerina pal to their Nutcracker rehearsal at the venerable Santa Barbara Festival Ballet conservatory downtown, which they’ve both been attending since they were toddlers. ”Dad, guess what?” my daughter said with mild kid-excitement. Oh, the little ones. They tickle us so with their vibrant love of life’s trivia, the joy they take in making their little announcements. I tilted my head and arched my dad eyebrows in a Father Knows Best show of syrupy endearment. “What is it, sweetie?” To which she replied brightly, “Mr. O’Neill isn’t going to play Mother Ginger anymore and—“

“I’ll do it!!” I rasped with such sudden force my spotted paws lifted momentarily from the steering wheel. “I’ll do it, I’ll do it!! I’LL DO IT!!” My startled daughter and her friend grew silent at the outburst, which I immediately understood to have sounded like that sudden hissing bark that erupts from zoo lizards and makes babies hysterical. My Tourette’s volunteerism had likewise frightened the girls. But Mother Ginger! What a role! Possibly the strangest role in Tchaikovsky’s kaleidoscopic, lush, hallucinogenic ballet. Over the following minutes the silence was profound in the car, let’s say. When I glanced over I saw that the color had quite fled my dear daughter’s paralyzed little face. She wore the grin of a statue, and spoke in an asthmatic squeak of terror.

“YOU’LL do it?”

“It” hadn’t actually been offered. But still. How could I not? I would assault the ramparts, make my case, prove my mettle, sing my qualifications from the rooftops. It would be my duty and my honor! And if my duty and honor were rebuffed by cooler heads back at the dance school, I would smash down the conservatory door in my bloomers and wig and demonstrate to the program directors my deep respect for Tchaikovsky’s most beloved late-romantic Tsarist commission. “Dad,” my daughter stammered anew. “Really?”

Mother and Fathers

To her rhetorical question I merely gawped at the road ahead, once again arching my emotionally overwrought eyebrows and staring dreamily through a filthy windshield. I simply couldn’t believe the largesse being passed to me on a silver platter, as it were. Mother Ginger! I’d attended the lavish Nutcracker production for years, glowed with pride and teared up in the dark of the Arlington house as I’d watched my beautiful baby girl blossom on that stage over the years, moving from role to role, growing taller, more graceful, her turns and pirouettes becoming more fluid, more sure, until she’d reached her current apogee— completing her transformation from adorable duckling to scarcely believable swan, a statuesque ballerina in the classic mold.

I had some serious shoes to fill—fearsome square-toed torture-heels that would not be out of place in the Tower of London. You know, next to the Iron Maiden and Rack. 

And now I too could partake of this magic, share the footlights with my daughter, join her in the artist’s journey. One is given such a chance but once in several lifetimes, and even less frequently if one’s daughter has any say. Her face that day in the car was itself a well of emotion, the predominant vibe something on the order of omigodnosomeonepleasejustwakemeup. I felt almost guilty. Why me? How did I deserve this? How many men would fight tooth and nail for what I’d simply been handed. I looked in the rearview mirror at my daughter’s friend, cowering in the back seat with her brave face on. “Are you sure your dad doesn’t want to do it?” I asked her. “I didn’t bring it up,” she replied. “I was afraid he’d say yes.”

A Hard Day’s Jeté

What was to become Santa Barbara Festival Ballet (SBFB) first opened its doors the year the Beatles stormed the Ed Sullivan show and turned a studio full of young ladies in sensible skirts into a maddened, hair-tearing throng of banshees. The conservatory has spent the intervening 52 years quietly anchoring the area’s classical dance community.


Well, not exactly quietly. In 1974 the conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony, Ronald Ondrejka, requested the pleasure of SBFB’s company in the first full-throated local production of Tchaikovksy’s Nutcracker, the two entities successfully mounting The Nutcracker at the Arlington that year. SBFB and a symphony orchestra have been holding Nutcracker court at the lovely old downtown theater every December between then and now, long since becoming a steadfast holiday tradition in our domed little Xanadu. It is an immersive holiday experience you must feel to believe.

And somewhere near the beginning of the second act, the most wonderful character of all takes the stage, raising her arms in a loving communal embrace, the embodiment of all the warmth and beauty woven throughout the rapturous ballet. Mother Ginger enters slowly, almost cautiously, it seems. Stage Left. She may be shuffling. Her decorous skirt where it meets the floor is as big around as a paratrooper’s ride. Ma Ginger sweeps downstage and greets her subjects.

Objection Overruled

Desmond O’Neill is a retired attorney with Gregory Peck carriage, salt and pepper hair and a fine Irish smile that crinkles his eyes. He does not suffer fools, however, and I am a fool. He has his work cut out for him. After 24 years of donning Mother Ginger’s enormous hooped skirt and scullery maid’s bonnet, painting his face like Slightly Mad Victorian Barbie® and sashaying grandly out to the Arlington’s center stage with arms a-waving, Des had thought it time to pass the petticoats on to another. This barrister with the patience of a saint (and just incidentally the onetime President of the Santa Barbara County Bar Association) had been performing the Mother Ginger role in the Nutcracker at the Arlington for long enough that to many audience members, Des simply WAS Mother Ginger—it could be said that Des O’Neill practically originated the role as it is now known at the Arlington, so identified is he with the character. And now I would have the amazing privilege to carry on that Holiday tradition here in Santa Barbara. I had some serious shoes to fill—fearsome square-toed torture-heels that would not be out of place in the Tower of London. You know, next to the Iron Maiden and Rack. Just sayin’.

Now, the role of Mother Ginger in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is one of those famous roles in classical dance about which it is said “It does not include dancing” (она не включает в себя танцы, in the original Russian). It does feature, however, much calibrated “to and fro” movement in front of a generally bewildered public, some gesturing with poultry-like forearms (in the present case), and a determined avoidance of that hollering, hooped plummet into the orchestra pit that all Mother Gingers fear. The Mother Ginger sequence also involves children. Many children, in truth. Such dancing as there is comes courtesy of the little ones; the Ginger Snaps.

Rehearsals proceeded apace at the downtown Santa Barbara Festival Ballet studio. I saw immediately that Des and I had competing visions of how to wrangle the children with whom I would be appearing onstage. When the time came in rehearsal for the little ones to line up along the imaginary stage apron and take their bows, or form a circle and prance like woodland faeries, there was often a bit of horseplay involved. Oh, you kids! “C’mon you guys!” I would beseech in my cracking tenor, grasping the rigid sides of my hoop skirt in umbrage. The dear ones would continue their playful gamboling. Then Des would give it a try. “SPREAD OUT EVENLY AND STAND STILL!!” he would boom like the guy offstage in Heston’s The Ten Commandments. By the time the studio windows had ceased their rattling the kids would have hauled-to so suddenly it was as if a frame of film had been suddenly spliced out.

Safety Pins and Knee Socks

Come the fateful night, the angels were surely looking down upon me with that radiant pity only angels know. Despite weeks of preparation and an over-familiarity with the sequence, I was quaking in my horizontally-striped psychedelic knee-socks. When the curtain fell at the end of the first act, I checked my makeup in the mirror and made my way to the stage. On the other side of the heavy curtain I could hear the jovial murmuring of audience members rising from their seats to stretch and trade jibber-jabber during the intermission. With the help of many helpful men and women, including dear Des with his mouthful of safety pins, I donned my elaborate Mother Ginger “rig” (as Des calls it), had it fastened into place, and made my elephantine way to my metal stool in the Arlington wings; the only place the 10’ diameter Ms. Ginger can find repose while awaiting her and the childrens’ entrance early in the second act. The jittery Ginger Snaps and I later entered on cue at the end of the dance of the Bakers, my feeling during the whole sequence one of gauzy surreality. I performed my requisite slow spin as the little Ginger Snaps danced around me, the seated Clara and Nutcracker characters staring laconically as I briefly faced them upstage.

I can tell you the sequence came off without a hitch in both performances of that, my inaugural Mother Ginger weekend, December 2015. As Des watched ruefully (it seemed) from the darkened wings, my accompanying Snaps emoted and stretched their little arms and blew kisses at the enraptured Arlington audience, who oohed and awwwed as if on cue themselves. A little later that evening, back in my street clothes and staring in wonder from the little hallway near the dressing room, I watched with held breath as my daughter and her dear friend, two former toddlers now bathed in theater lighting, took the stage in their sparkling ballet finery, rose up en pointe and turned the world on its gilded edge. I encourage you, dear reader, to stop in and see this crazy-beautiful ballet. This Nutcracker at the Arlington thing; it’s enough to make a grown man cry.


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