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The Nutcracker ballet: What happens backstage

A look at the organized chaos behind the scenes that brings the precision ballet to life on stage.

A look at the organized chaos of bringing the precision ballet to life

Erika Delponte, who plays one of the Snow Maidens, waits to take the stage for The National Ballet of Canada's performance of The Nutcracker in Toronto. (David Donnelly/CBC)

There is no show more important to The National Ballet of Canada than its annual staging of The Nutcracker. 

The time-honoured classic involves dozens of dancers and a huge stage crew. It has to come together smoothly, because it also provides crucial revenue to fund The National Ballet through the following year.

While the audience sees the grace and precision happening on stage, the preparations and backstage action can seem more like organized chaos. 

Here's a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to bring the spectacular ballet to life.

Setting up

Weeks before performances begin, The National Ballet takes its Nutcracker sets out of storage at the The Gretchen Ross Production Centre in Scarborough, Ont., and moves them to the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts in downtown Toronto.

Handle with care

Many parts of the sets are delicate and have to be moved carefully to avoid damage.

Precious cargo

The elaborate sets were built in 1995 at a cost of $2.7 million.

Big move

The props and backdrops fill nine transport-truck trailers.

Range of performers

As rehearsals begin, a diverse team of performers comes together. The youngest is just six years old. The oldest has been performing with the National Ballet since its inception 50 years ago.

These young dancers have some fun playing cards during a rest break.

Rehearsals

A dancer stretches before rehearsing at the Walter Carsen Centre for The National Ballet of Canada in Toronto.

Strength and grace

Most of The National Ballet's company of dancers have performed The Nutcracker many times. But it is considered a gruelling ballet, one that requires extensive individual practice.

Fitness

Dancers must maintain peak physical conditioning.

Costumes

These costumes are for the Flowers in The Palace of The Sugar Plum Fairy. Many of the costumes have been used for more than 20 years, and are carefully resized depending on who plays each part.

Accessories

Barbara de Kat, the wardrobe co-ordinator who helps keep the costumes organized and in good repair, sorts through boxes of earrings.

Sugar Plum Fairy

Principal dancer Jillian Vanstone, who has the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, checks her tiara.

Makeup

When it's time to perform for an audience, the dancers also require extensive makeup. Jonathan Renna, who plays Uncle Nikolai, gets help with his wig.

Elaborate masks

The masks of the Cat, Rat and Goat.

Suiting up

Jessica Stevens, who plays a rat in Act One, puts on her mask backstage. 

Limbering up

Once make-up and costuming are finished, warming up is the final preparation for dancers before taking to the stage. Snow Maiden Erika Delponte goes through her stretching routine.

Quick-change

Costume changes often have to happen rapidly in the wings while a performer is briefly off the stage. It's imperative dancers know where to go, what they need to put on and how much time they have.

Stage management

People such as stage manager Jeff Morris keep things running smoothly behind the scenes.

Helping hands

Principal dancer Harrison James gets a quick make-up and costume change by the glow of flashlights between scenes, moving from the role of Peter to the Nutcracker.

In the wings

Unseen by the audience, fellow dancers and members of the stage crew watch their colleagues from the wings, sometimes commenting on the performance.

En pointe

​Dancers spend nearly the entire ballet 'en pointe' — on their tiptoes. Once the show is over, many dunk their feet in buckets of ice.

Photography by David Donnelly, CBC