RAISING THE BARRE

With 16 years of recruiting localebrity Mother Ginger roles for Ballet Austin’s The Nutcracker, our social insider Forrest Preece shares backstage look at the fundraising effort that has enhanced the state’s holiday tradition.

Renderings by set designer Holly Highfill and costume designer Judanna Lynn Photography by Tony Spielberg

Tradition turned upside down.

That’s what you might call Ballet Austin’s approach to raising the profile of not only its organization, yet also its annual holiday rite of The Nutcracker. In the spring of 1997, Cookie Ruiz, who had just been named general manager of Ballet Austin (she is now executive director), had a dream in which Gov. Ann Richards was playing the role of Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker. The next morning she called Ballet Austin board member Joene Grissom, a close friend of Richards’, to ask her if she would be willing to invite the Governor to do just that: appear onstage with Ballet Austin in the role of Mother Ginger for a series of upcoming performances. While the Governor’s schedule would not permit her participation then, Joene was convinced that this crazy idea had merit and that the ballet might be able to get people other notables to do the role, if those being honored were asked for only one performance each.

I was looped in next, because Ballet Austin was my PR client and I was active on the marketing committee. Grissom and I sat down and began to brainstorm, and soon I was dubbed with the title of “Mother Ginger Wrangler” — and the rest is history. By the way, two years after that, Gov. Richards did a terrific one-night performance as Mother Ginger. Little did I know that sixteen years later, I’d still be cajoling VIPs to spend three-and-a-half minutes atop a huge red and white dress, wearing a headdress decorated with cookies and candy canes, displaying a large set of upper body enhancements, having fun, and gyrating their bodies with the music from The Austin Symphony.

By inviting bold-face names to join the Ballet Austin’s professional dancers and Academy students onstage, Ballet Austin, in its uniquely Austin way has enjoyed the opportunity to reach deeply into the many Central Texas communities attending this enormous 200-cast member production over the years – film, music, sports, military, cuisine, academics, media and politics—and have let many get a glimpse of what goes on backstage. That initial year in 1995, we had to dig deep to make it work, since we were selling an unknown concept. We were getting a lot of “are you for real?” feedback. The very first person Joene and I asked, and thank goodness she accepted, was Jody Conradt, the legendary coach of the Lady Longhorns basketball team. “I never felt so self-conscious,” said Conradt of the experience.

We also recruited some of the most natural showpeople in town that year, including Shannon Sedwick of Esther’s Follies fame, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, legendary businessman and Austin Citizen of the Year Willie Kocurek, and then-Mayor Kirk Watson, who has been invited to return to the role more times than anyone else, and he never disappoints with his performances. All of them gave spirited performances. After that first season, we knew we could make it work. Now the process has evolved into a yearly routine.

Just how does it work? We meet in February each year to determine a list of people we want to honor (we started with 10 performances; this year, we have 13). Then, after we prioritize, I start making contacts. Two things I have discovered are that some people just will not be Mother Ginger under any circumstances; and a lot of them have jobs that put them in the public eye all the time, but they (or one of their handlers) claim that they’re “too shy to do it.” On the other hand, some people who you’d think would be reserved and not that animated, get on top of the dress and surprise us all – Austin’s City Manager Marc Ott falls in this category, with one of the all-time best performances. So did a high-ranking colonel from Fort Hood – an Army Ranger no less – who displayed enormous physicality and took charge from up there. At one point, he had the whole audience clapping along with the music.

It is surprising how a job like this can add another level of perspective to your life. You get to see people backstage in a context they have never been in before and the reactions and some things they say are revealing and delightful. For instance, technology impresario Michael Dell took one look at the speech we had ready for his pre-curtain talk, memorized it and delivered it with precision. Then he did a well-planned performance. It gets especially fun when people have the outlandish makeup applied backstage.

Nationally-known broadcast journalist E. D. Hill said that she hadn’t so much makeup on since she was a high school cheerleader. Good-natured Official State Musician of Texas Sara Hickman got the whole get-up on, flashed her ear-to-ear smile and immediately started displaying a series of fetching poses for the cameras in the dressing room. And practically every man who finally sees his face in the mirror once the makeup is applied, says, “Wow!” then has a ebullient laugh.

Then there are other reactions. One man, who was skeptical about being there when he arrived, sat in the wings during the first act and watched statuesque dancer Margot Brown perform as the Snow Queen. When the curtain descended at intermission, he walked over to me, his eyes watering, and said, “Forrest, what is the name of that part of the ballet? I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. To think how long those dancers have to work to be able to perform at this level – and then one injury could end it all!” State Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn, who was a child thespian in Austin along with the late Karen Kuykendall, was sitting with me stage right waiting for her final bow and I saw her staring at the stage manager seated at his console, making the calls that run the ballet. She leaned over to me and said with a professional’s knowing tone, “Oh man, he is really good.”

Sometimes you see people do revealing things off stage. In 2002, National Public Radio personality Scott Simon brought ballet shoes along and went through the warm-up exercises with the dancers between shows. Last year, Jenna Bush Hager and her twin sister, Barbara, hosted a reception for some friends in the Green Room backstage when Jenna was slated to perform the role, the day before she announced her pregnancy on national television. These young women who could have contracted with any caterer in town to provide the food, went to a local store, bought some boxes of cookies and other party treats and carried them to the event themselves.

As for another First Daughter, Luci Baines Johnson showed that she is really her mom and dad’s girl – on a moment’s notice, she went out and gave an articulate pre-curtain speech about Ballet Austin that made Cookie, who was standing backstage, tear up with gratitude. Of course, I cannot neglect to mention Lance Avery Morgan, editor-in-chief of this publication, who, last year brought along a framed and autographed photo of Tina Louise as Ginger in Gilligan’s Island, along with ginger snap cookies, and place in his dressing room before his performance to make sure the theme was front and center.

For the next generation of its Nutcracker performers, Ballet Austin is fundraising for new costumes and sets that will dazzle holiday audiences at a new level. As seen here, set designer Holly Highfill and costume designer Judanna Lynn have brought their creativity so that children of all ages can be transported and new Mother Gingers will take to the stage. “Through the role of Mother Ginger, our audience crosses the footlights and joins us on stage,” ballerina Inga Loujerenko said, as she represents the Ballet Austin cast in their enthusiasm for future years of noteworthy Mother Ginger appearances