The Mother Ginger (Snaps) of The Nutcracker Ballet

There’s something divine about being surrounded by Black women: shea butter embraces; sticky red lipstick kisses on foreheads; sugar, spice and…gingersnaps. It’s a veritable healing circle of kindred spirits, with generations of strength, grace, poise, tenacity, and love (always love).

This is the energy surrounding Ballet Afrique’s interpretation of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic The Nutcracker. Based on Duke Ellington’s masterful jazz reimagining of the ballet, The Nutcracker Suite, the Ballet Afrique production began its journey in 2008. Fifteen years later, the jazz-soaked dance celebration continues to enthrall and entice Austin audiences.

A particular poignancy ripples through Black and Brown communities when experiencing the show for the first time. “[There are] two very important things,” China Smith, founding artistic director of Ballet Afrique and former Austin Woman cover woman, begins. “Number one, if we don’t create productions like this, then artists do not get a chance to work. There’s so much talent here in Austin that we just don’t see because they’re gigging, they’re working. So having a steady gig like The Nutcracker for professional dancers is very rewarding.

That first scene that you see when it opens up is about family, and it’s an opportunity for people to see Black families loving each other.

“Number two, going to The Nutcracker is a tradition for AISD schools to provide [children] with this diverse perspective. The ballet opens, and there’s a big mansion, and people are walking in these dresses, and it’s a whole fantasy world. To be able to imagine yourself…” Smith pauses, gathering her words as if plucking from a memory of her childhood experiences with The Nutcracker Ballet as a Black child growing up in Austin. “[You think,] ‘Do I fit in as a person of color in the world of fantasy and sugar and sweets and make-believe? Is there a place for me?’ Just that visual of this party scene. There’s no mansion, but it’s full of love. That first scene that you see when it opens up is about family, and it’s an opportunity for people to see Black families loving each other.”

Central to the messaging of strength, loyalty, joy, and love is the role of Mother Ginger. Historically, the physicality of the costume design meant that men often took on the role out of necessity. However, as is the case with time, advances in technology, fashion, and theater opened the role to woman-identified folx who proudly wore the title.

(l to r) Ballet Afrique Founder China Smith, Ora Houston (2018 Mother Ginger), Shuronda Robinson (2023 Mother Ginger), Dr. Nicole Cross (2021 Mother Ginger), Natasha Harper-Madison (2019 Mother Ginger), and Terry P. Mitchell (2022 Mother Ginger). Photos by Sam Lewis.

The role itself goes through a code switch when in the hands of Smith and her iconic dance company. “In this universe where Duke Ellington is the composer, I’ve turned everything upside down,” Smith reveals, her voice dripping with mirth and a charming bit of sass. The words morph into a smile that reaches her eyes. “It’s through the lens of Black people. So, Mother Ginger is Mother Ginger Snaps.”

This year, Mother Ginger Snaps will be represented by Adisa Communications founder and president, Austin Woman’s own Shuronda Robinson. “It’s such an iconic part, at first, I thought, ‘Wow!’ I mean, what do you do? What do you think?” Robinson says, awe coloring her tone in the stardust and magic that make up the iconic character. “I’m honored by it, and I’m actually looking forward to having some fun with it.”

Experience Ballet Afrique’s The Nutcracker Suite on Jan. 6, 2024, at the Paramount Theatre. Get your tickets online and read the full story by Cy White in Austin Woman Magazine.


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