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A View from the Feet

By guest blogger Carol Cohen, Mother Matryoshka performer for 5 years

Mother Matryoshkas on Morsani Hall stage at the Straz Center during Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Among the whip-thin ballerinas performing grand jetés and assemblés in the Russian Imperial ballet of the Nutcracker, loom the rotund, bouncing figures of the Mother Matryoshkas—eight Russian nesting dolls, appearing in descending order of height and girth. The Matryoshkas–meaning “little mother” in Russian–appear on stage in the dream sequence along with their “children,” the polichinelle acrobats.

Different productions of The Nutcracker include a Mother Ginger—typically performed by a tall, male performer with loads of make-up, and wearing a huge hooped skirt—from which the children run out. But the Nutcracker production at the Straz Center utilizes the nesting dolls as their symbol of family and holiday togetherness.

The Matryoshka costumes are constructed of a plastic web framework covered with 2 inch thick foam padding, elaborately painted on the outside. Inside at the top is a hardhat with a chin strap—in essence, the performer balances the costume on her head and steers with two door handles mounted on either side. Vision is limited to an eight-square-inch piece of mesh—the face part of the costume.

Visibility of those in the Mother Matryoshka role is limited to the mesh opening of the costume.

The largest of the dolls, the Mother of all mothers so to speak, has blinking eyes (operated by a lever inside) and an opening through which the performer flutters a fan at her entourage. The performer in this role can best practice by patting her head and rubbing her stomach in a clockwise motion.

Matryoshka dolls actually originated in Japan or China—depending on which website your cursor lands on—but their attraction is universal. Type “Matroyshka” into your search engine and you’ll find the dolls spanning all cultures and emblazoned on items as varied as nail files, measuring cups and iPhone cases.

Matryoshka dolls are one of the most popular souvenirs associated with Russia in the world today, as evidenced by their frequent appearance at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Giant inflatable Matryoshkas topped the snowy slopes of the skiing and snowboarding competitions, and special TV segments took viewers behind the scenes to Matryoshka factories.

So what does it take to be a Mother Matryoshka in Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker?

Top-notch dance skills? Well, not so much. Given the girth of each Mother M and a leg opening that is only 20 inches wide, movement is more akin to marching albeit with pointed toes. More subtle movement is lost on the audience, so there is a lot of rotating, some tilting and a few basic tap steps. More animated movements would be a recipe for disaster—conjuring up nightmare scenes of rolling off Morsani Hall stage in front of 2,000 audience members.

Inside of the Mother Matryoshka costume; the performer wears the hardhat –essentially balancing the costume to wear it.

Long for the spotlight? All right, get your ankles ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille. Because your feet and ankles are the only body parts that can be seen on-stage. Tell family and friends which number in line you arrive on stage to get your fair share of applause.

Prone to bouts of claustrophobia? This role is not for you. One of the costumes is brought into the auditions in September, expressly for this purpose. Seven of the eight Mother M roles are typically filled by adult students from the Patel Conservatory open dance program, with the smallest Mother M being a male dancer from the Patel Conservatory Youth Ballet.

Can’t commit to rehearsals? Nuh-uh—not going to work. Mother M’s have weekly rehearsals from September through October and then three times a week minimum up until performance time. While the steps are simple, performing on stage with limited visibility and mobility, and with sound cues muffled—in unison with seven others takes a lot of practice. Just as with all other performers, Artistic Director Peter Stark demands perfection.

Valerie Hirvela assists Karen Heinemann into her Mother Matryoshka costume for rehearsal.

So why, in the midst of a busy holiday season, take the time to be a Mother Matryoshka? Because it is an honor and a privilege to be part of a cast that provides a beloved holiday tradition for so many people. And it is a mother lode of fun!

Carol Cohen is a writer, marketer and hoarder of high-quality paper goods. She has been employed by the Straz Center for more than six years, and currently is the Communications Specialist in the Marketing Department. Carol has been an avid student of dance, theater and music at the Patel Conservatory since it opened in 2004. She and her husband Brad run a small business – MindMeld Marketing – that covers a myriad of projects. Carol never misses an opportunity to dress in costume. Ever.

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