Ballet San Antonio casts local heroes in ‘Nutcracker’

Special education teacher Hannah Eli remembers reading about the community members who played Mother Ginger in Ballet San Antonio’s production of “The Nutcracker” last year, but she never expected to have the opportunity to do it herself.

Eli was at Central Market with her husband the day after Thanksgiving when she got word from the ballet that she had been nominated to be Mother Ginger, and the role was hers for one performance this year if she wanted it.

“I was looking at my phone and checking messages, then I saw the message saying I’d been selected,” said Eli, 30, who teaches at Devine Intermediate School. “I just started crying.”

The opportunity meant a lot to her, and it also sent a message to her students. She knows they hear a lot of “you can’t do that,” because that’s what she heard when she was a girl. She took special education classes in school, she said, and a counsellor urged her not to go to college because she’d most likely flunk out.

“I want to show my kids you can do this,” she said. “You can do what you want.”

Where: Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, 100 Auditorium Circle

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25.20-$132,


See More

Eli is one of eight community members playing Mother Ginger in “The Nutcracker” this year. Many ballet companies across the country use the role to honor or showcase worthy people in their communities. This year, Ballet Austin cast community leaders in the part, and  Ballet Brazos in Bryan had a television meteorologist play the role.

READ MORE: Guide to holiday events in San Antonio, including lots of “Nutcracker” and “Christmas Carol”

This is the second year Ballet San Antonio has taken that approach. The Mother Gingers were nominated by members of the community.

“Casting local heroes in the role of Mother Ginger has been a really great way to acknowledge the contributions they’ve made to our community,” ballet CEO Evin Eubanks said in a statement. “Our production of ‘The Nutcracker’ is an immersive experience that allows families a bit of time in the theater for fanciful delight and fun, and when they see the people we’re honoring on stage, it’s even better.”

For last weekend’s performances, the role was played by Eli, KSAT meteorologist Mike Osterhage, former Judson ISD superintendent Jeanette Ball  and Nathan Cone, vice president for cultural and community engagement at Texas Public Radio. Brisa del Bosque-Byrnes, who founded the bilingual volunteer organization Ayudemos, will play the part on Saturday. The rest of the lineup for the final weekend of the ballet is being finalized.

The comic role is a crowd-pleaser. Mother Ginger is an extremely proud mom who appears in the second act seeking her many children. She looms high above the stage, sporting a Maria Antoinette-ish wig and an enormous hoop skirt that stands more than 6 feet tall. To the delight of audiences, eight little ones soon pop onstage from beneath her skirt, tumbling and cartwheeling across the stage.

Mother Ginger’s costume is more like a small parade float than an article of clothing. Those who play the part don’t so much wear it as they ride it, standing atop a small platform that they reach via stepladder. The young acrobats climb in just before the character is wheeled onstage.

“You can feel the body heat of the children underneath you and you can hear them talking,” said flamenco dancer Tamira Adira, 53, who filled in as Mother Ginger at dress rehearsal and who plays Clara’s mother in the party scene. “The view they get is your legs.”

The performers-for-a-day are told to have fun onstage — to flirt with the Nutcracker Prince, to wave and blow kisses to the audience and beam with pride as the little acrobats surge onstage.

“The crew at Ballet San Antonio made it a wonderful experience,” said Cone, 49. “They made me totally comfortable doing everything, and all I had to do was show up and go crazy onstage.”

Cone knew “The Nutcracker” well because his daughter was part of the children’s cast for several years, working her way up from the angels to the mice and the soldiers. When he was offered the opportunity to be a part of the ballet himself, he jumped at the chance.

“It just looks like such a fun show that brings so much joy to people,” he said.

Going to see “The Nutcracker” also was a part of Spanish teacher del Bosque-Byrnes’ family’s life when they lived in Denver, but she and her family had not gone to a San Antonio production since they moved here eight years ago.

The 43-year-old mother of three was nominated by people with Ayudemos, a volunteer organization that does a range of work, including translating for Spanish-speaking hospital patients and preparing meals for families at the Ronald McDonald House.

“I don’t need any kind of recognition, but my kids were excited, so I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it for them,’ ” she said.

RELATED: Lightscape returns to the SA Botanical Garden bigger and brighter

Eli, who played the part at Saturday’s matinee, joked that she came into it with some experience with expansive clothing. She said her wedding dress was so puffy that her dad had to walk behind her rather than next to her when he walked her down the aisle last year.

There was one minor hiccup at the show — the skirt got snagged in its wheels, which Eli discovered when she heard one of the acrobats below say “uh-oh.” So she didn’t quite make it to center stage, but she played the part with gusto.

Her students wanted to hear all about it when she got to school Monday.

“They were so excited all day,” she said. “They’ve been wanting to see pictures of it.” | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN