Take a peek inside the wardrobe for Alberta Ballet's Nutcracker cast

Every year, when Alberta Ballet's dancers take the stage for the company's seasonal showing of The Nutcracker, it marks the end of months of hard work for the company's wardrobe department.

Raven Hehr, head of wardrobe, shows off costumes that tell the traditional Christmas tale

Raven Hehr, the head of wardrobe for Alberta Ballet, said they spend between 1,100 and 1,400 hours every year maintaining, repairing, prepping and fitting the costumes for the company's annual run of The Nutcracker. (Paul McGrath)

Every year, when Alberta Ballet's dancers take the stage for the company's seasonal showing of The Nutcracker, it marks the end of months of hard work for the company's wardrobe department.

But, their work is never truly done.

Alberta Ballet is celebrating 10 seasons of its current version of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's classic work, choreographed by Edmund Stripe, and Raven Hehr, the head of wardrobe for the company, is the one tasked with making sure their costumes are ready for every plié and pas de deux.

Raven Hehr is the head of wardrobe for Alberta Ballet. She said every year she spends weeks replacing thousands of rhinestones by hand that are lost from the Nutcracker costumes during their holiday run. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

There are 160 costumes featured in Alberta Ballet's Nutcracker, each comprised of three to five pieces. Once you factor in wigs, headpieces and accessories, Hehr said it means she has more than 800 items to prep and track for the ballet. 

"They're definitely different from say, a standard theater costume, or from a costume that's used on film, being that the dancers are so physical and what they're doing in the costumes is a lot different from say just standard theater," Hehr said. 

"They do take a lot more wear and tear."

Hehr shows off the Sugar Plum Fairy costume. Hehr said they never use pure white on stage because it is too reflective for the audience. White colours used on stage and generally more of a cream or a winter white. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

The work on preparing for their holiday run often begins when we are still at the peak of summer. Over the course of the ballet's 10-year run, Hehr said the costumes have seen a lot of action, so they choose one set of costumes to refurbish every year, along with the mending and prepping they do to the entire cast wardrobe.

Hehr said she takes on the very labour-intensive task of replacing thousands of rhinestones every year, which she does by hand, using tweezers and industrial adhesive.

"It generally takes me a couple of weeks in order to replace all the rhinestones for the whole show that have fallen off in cleaning or fallen off during the run of the show," she said.

"We spend about 1,100 to 1,400 hours every year just maintaining, repairing, prepping and fitting the costumes for a Nutcracker every year," she said.

Inside of the Show Tsarina's costume as stretchy rigging. Casting changes for every Nutcracker performance so the costumes pieces are designed to be quickly altered to fit without sewing. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

From party guests, to wolves and mice, to the Rat Tsar and the Sugar Plum Fairy, Alberta Ballet's costumes get a lot of use every year — and they are only cleaned at the end of every run.

Hehr said the casting changes for every performance, so dancers often need to learn several parts and be prepared to slip into a different costume for every show.

Most of the costumes have hook and bar closures so they can be adjusted for different dancers' sizes without needing stitching. They also use dress shields — which they refer to as "pit pads" — to help keep the costumes from getting too foul between washings.

The Nutcracker costumes are only cleaned after each run. Dancers use dress shields, which they refer to as 'pit pads' to protect the costumes from sweat between washings. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

"The Nutcracker can be quite a bit different from say any modern ballet that we do. A lot of our modern ballets use 90 per cent stretch fabrics, they're built in a different way. Nutcracker is built kind of more in the classical ballet fashion," Hehr said.

A lot of the costumes are made with brocade fabrics that are backed with a cotton or polyester. Hehr said they don't have a lot of stretch because they need the structure in order to maintain the shape, so they will add stretchy panels in strategic places so dancers are able to breathe and move properly during their performance.

"Unfortunately you can't make everything out of heavy-duty polyester. If we could, then we wouldn't have such a problem, but we use we use a wide range of fabrics," she said.

Alberta Ballet's Sugar Plum Fairy costumes cost $2,500 each and feature tutus make with 12 layers of tulle. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

Alberta Ballet's Nutcracker by the numbers:

  • 29 performances of The Nutcracker scheduled for the cast this year, including dress rehearsals.
  • 120+ performers in the cast.
  • 160 total costumes, each made up of three to four separate pieces.
  • 800+ individual costume pieces, including headpieces, wigs, accessories.
  • 1,100 — 1,400 hours spent per year maintaining, repairing, prepping and fitting costumes.
  • 1000s of rhinestones every year by wardrobe crew using tweezers and industrial adhesive.
  • 30 minutes — one hour spent on each dancer.
  • Six to eight roles, casting changes every performance, each dancer has to learn several different parts, sometimes up to eight roles.
  • Five Sugar Plum Fairy costumes owned by Alberta Ballet.
  • 12 layers of tulle on each Sugar Plum Fairy tutu, which each cost $2,500 to build.

Alberta Ballet's The Nutcracker is running at the Alberta Jubilee Auditorium until Dec. 24. Visit the Alberta Ballet website for ticket information.

Raven Hehr, the head of wardrobe for Alberta Ballet, shows off the Rat Tsar's costume. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)
Alberta Ballet's Arctic wolf costumes were built by costume designer Martin Izquierdo and feature both real and fake fur (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

With files from Elizabeth Withey


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