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.

The Nutcracker

Handle with care

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

The Nutcracker

Precious cargo

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

The Nutcracker

Big move

The props and backdrops fill nine transport-truck trailers.

The Nutcracker

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.

The Nutcracker

Rehearsals

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

The Nutcracker

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.

The Nutcracker

Fitness

Dancers must maintain peak physical conditioning.

The Nutcracker

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.

The Nutcracker

Accessories

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

The Nutcracker

Sugar Plum Fairy

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

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.

The Nutcracker

Elaborate masks

The masks of the Cat, Rat and Goat.

The Nutcracker

Suiting up

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

The Nutcracker

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.

The Nutcracker

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.

The Nutcracker

Stage management

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

The Nutcracker

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.

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.
The Nutcracker

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.

The Nutcracker (16x9)

Photography by David Donnelly, CBC