By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – It takes a man to be a mother.
Mother Ginger, that is.
“Mother Ginger is traditionally played by a dancer ‘en travesti’,” said Donna Decker of Decker School of Ballet. “In ballet, we don’t call it drag.”
This year, Oneonta City school board member and Assembly candidate Dan Buttermann stepped into the dress that Assistant Fire Chief Jim Maloney, Bassett orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joseph Dutkowsky and professional ballet dancer Andy Wentink have filled for several years, dancing with the Polichinelles.
The Polichinelles are little children who emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirt in second act of “The Nutcracker,” put on by Decker’s Fokine Ballet Friday-Saturday, Dec. 6-7, at the Goodrich Theater.
Buttermann’s three daughters, Nadia, Layla and Malena, have danced in “The Nutcracker,” and in 2016, when there was a vacancy in the party scene, their dad stepped in.
“Then this year, Jim Maloney had a conflict, so Donna asked if I would step in as Mother Ginger,” he said.
Decker often casts local men – “ballet dads” Maloney calls them – to step in as Mother Ginger.
“You need somebody tall enough to have all the children underneath,” said Decker. “And the costume is quite heavy, so the dancer has to be able to handle it. Ours isn’t that heavy, but the New York City Ballet’s costume weights 60 pounds.”
“I’ve seen productions where Mother Ginger is on scaffolding,” said Maloney, who played the role six times between 2009 and 2018. “The costume is pretty heavy; it’s a big piece of plywood with suspenders to hold it up, then you put the dress on over that.”
Wentink debuted his Mother Ginger in 1962 when he was 14, dancing in the Fokine Ballet – Irene Fokine was Donna Decker’s mother, and the daughter has extended the tradition.
He amassed over 40 productions in the role, including a final performance in the 2017 Oneonta production.
“In the 1970s, she inherited a fan used by Gwen Verdon in ‘Sweet Charity’ which seemed to imbue her with a flirtatious and seductive, but always tasteful, allure,” Wentink wrote for Dance magazine in 2013. “In the early 1980s, Mother Ginger found herself costumed in more subdued pastel tones with hair transformed from flaming henna to softer blonde. In keeping with the new look, she projected a newfound mature modesty.”
“I let them all develop their own character,” said Donna. “Andy always played her very flirtatiously, and Dr. Dutkowsky would do the Macarena.”
“Mother Ginger is excited that she has all this attention,” said Buttermann. “And then when these clowns come out from under her skirt, she’s trying to get them all back until she realizes she can’t, and then she goes back to being part of the show.”
This year, his daughter Malena was one of the Polichinelles.
“I played her as that loopy old grandmother that shows up at the party and has too much fun,” said Maloney. “For the first few years, I wore my fireman’s helmet and boots!”
And neither Maloney nor Buttermann shaved their mustaches for the role.
“The way I see it, since Clara is asleep and dreaming this, she’s seen me at the party, so she puts me in the role of Mother Ginger, the way dreams do,” said Maloney. “That’s why I still have my mustache.”
It’s a role, Maloney said, that sticks with you. “You hear the ‘Mirliton’” – the “Dance of the Mirlitons,” which precedes Ginger – “a lot on the radio,” he said. “I was grocery shopping and it came on, and I broke out in a cold sweat because that’s my cue. I was started to get warmed up and then I realized, wait, I’m in the grocery store!”
And it’s a role that all the dancers have been proud to play. “Dr. Dutkowsky told me that he kept a picture of himself in his office,” said Decker. “When kids would be nervous about getting surgery, he would tell them, ‘I’m Mother Ginger, everything will be fine.”
“It’s on my resume,” said Maloney. “It says ‘Soloist, Fokine Ballet.’”
“If Donna asks, I’ll do it again next year,” said Buttermann, who could be Assemblyman-elect by then.