MOTHER GINGER'S huge, billowing skirt opens up, and suddenly eight tiny children race out, dance around the stage, and scoot back again to delighted applause. This is always a show-stopping scene in ``The Nutcracker,'' and especially so here, where a genial dancer and teacher named Tony Collins has been playing the role for 25 years. The polichinelles, as the children are called, are chosen after auditions in October, and for the next month or so Mr. Collins works with the several groups that will share the role during the show's six-week run. Then there are the dress rehearsals, followed by 47 performances, running from late November until New Year's Eve. It's quite a grind, but he loves every minute of it.
``I hear some dancers say, `Oh, no! Not another show,''' he says, ``but it never seems old-hat to me. I really look forward to it each year - each performance.''
Nowadays the Boston Ballet ``Nutcracker'' is a hot ticket throughout the holiday season, playing to sold-out houses night after night at the 4,200-seat Wang Center. But Collins goes all the way back to a very different era in the late 1950s and early '60s, when the late Virginia Williams started the whole thing on the proverbial shoestring.
``We were a small company playing in a small theater in the Back Bay then,'' recalls Collins, who runs his own dance school in suburban Randolph. ``We did only two or three `Nutcrackers.' And I did everything then - the Chinese and Russian numbers, the Snow King, the Cavalier. We worked just as hard then as we do now, too - and never got paid. There wasn't any money. Virginia mortgaged her house to buy scenery.''
Eventually the company changed names, began its growth toward its present stature, and launched the major ``Nutcracker'' production that has become its annual staple. Then, as Collins recalls, ``One day Virginia Williams just said to me, `You're going to be Mother Ginger. There are your stilts.'' They are not the huge ones you see circus clowns parading around on, but a rig that lifts the wearer up about 14 inches - just enough to make room underneath the skirt for those eight little girls.
``They look as though you could walk normally in them, but you can't,'' Collins says. ``The stride is much different. And if you fall, there's nobody to help you up. That's it; the curtain comes down; the scene is over.''
This holiday season marks the 25th consecutive one that Collins has played the dual roles of the grandmother, complete with her own little show-stopping dance in Act One, followed by that of Mother Ginger in Act Two.
``It's fun doing both roles,'' he says, noting that one interpretation of the ballet says they are really the same person - that Mother Ginger is a fairy-tale version of the grandmother.
The polichinelles, who have to be small enough to fit under the skirt, are mostly in the 7 to 9 age range, and it is the choice role for these little dance students getting their first ``Nutcracker'' opportunity. They are all girls, with half of them playing boys' parts.
Collins estimates he has worked with between 400 and 500 children over the years. - and, of course, there have been some close calls in terms of stage fright or near-mishaps.
A dancer who had gone on to bigger roles once wrote that in her first performance as an 8-year-old polichinelle, ``My legs were shaking so hard I was afraid when the skirt opened I just wouldn't come out!'' Collins says this has never actually happened, but he recalls one awkward moment.
``We did it on a TV show about 15 years ago,'' he recalls. ``The first kid ran out, saw the lights and cameras, and ran back in again. It wasn't really her fault. She was used to doing it onstage, but this was all so different and disorienting. She saw all the equipment and people and thought something was wrong. But it all worked out alright. I just told her to go back out again, and she did., and everything was fine.
``Then there was the time I stepped on one as we were moving onto the stage. That was total panic, because we all knew that if I fell that was it. But I managed to keep my balance.'' By now, some of the girls Collins has worked with range into their 30s, and many have gone on to dance other ``Nutcracker'' roles.for youngsters of all ages, including reindeer, soldiers, and the choice role of party child, topped by the big role of Clara, the little girl around whom the story is built.
Many ex-polichinelles have gone on to play this role, and some have continued even farther. Boston's current ballet sensation, Jennifer Gelfand - the 18-year-old prodigy who already is dancing such leading roles as Kitri in ``Don Quixote,'' Juliet in ``Romeo and Juliet,'' and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the current ``Nutcracker'' - got her start as an 8-year-old polichinelle dancing out from under Tony's skirt back in 1979.