It's tulle time at Goh Ballet's Nutcracker

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The heritage building that houses the Goh Ballet is alive with the sounds of The Nutcracker, the strains of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s famous score echoing down the halls as students rehearse in the studios. Here, at the end of the corridor in a makeshift costume shop that gears up this time of year, sequinned tutus, piled on top of each other like a giant tulle souffle, explode off a counter. Wardrobe workers have just finished painting little toe slippers red for The Nutcracker’s Chinese Dance; they’re now drying on a table. Candy-coloured soldier, harlequin, and gymnast costumes fight for space on racks. And rat heads with curlicue whiskers stare down menacingly from the higher shelves.

This is ground zero for the production, now in its fourth year, and it’s a microcosm of the logistical challenges of putting on a lavishly outfitted, 217-performer show.

“The biggest challenge is working with three different casts,” admits wardrobe mistress Deborah Basterfield, whose team has to mend and alter garments before each show—even between matinee and evening productions. “Everybody has to have all their pieces,” she adds, pointing out that every costume has about six separate parts. Soldiers sport items from gaiters to hats, and partygoers have their caps and muffs. “We’re good at pinning things together, and everything’s numbered and tagged inside with the dancers’ names.”

For the Goh Ballet’s director, former National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Chan Hon Goh, splurging on the costumes was an important part of building the company’s own Nutcracker four years ago. “Having grown up in Vancouver, but spending the major part of my career at the National and various productions elsewhere, I know that more than any other ballet, The Nutcracker is going to be the most used and watched signature piece for every company,” she explains, sitting in her upstairs office at the Main Street hub. “So I knew in the planning stage that we needed good costumes. When I was dancing, I was quite spoiled in having danced in some of the most elaborate productions, and I know how it affects the experience for the audience.” For the dancers, she adds, “it makes the job of the storytelling that much easier when the costumes and sets are magical.”

Basterfield admits the classic tutu itself is the hardest of all the costumes to create and maintain. Pulling out the shimmering golden Sugarplum Fairy’s confection, she says one of these creations can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000. Just as the toe shoes are handmade, the tutu defies the sewing machine. Its 16-odd layers of tulle are stitched by hand, as are all its sequins. Flexible boning runs up its carefully crafted corset.

Goh points out that the opening party scene’s ball gowns are almost as daunting. “They have to fit on top like a corset with big puffy sleeves, and there are petticoats under the gowns.”

As busy as Basterfield and her team are now, pressing and cleaning the hundreds of garments that have been in storage for most of the year, they’ll really be working like mad once the show starts. Aside from the sheer responsibility of getting everyone dressed—including children as young as six—the wardrobe workers constantly wield their needles and thread to do those alterations for changing casts. They also have to battle the wear and tear that happens when dancers are leaping and extending in their clothing. “Every show, these little hooks and bars pull off,” Basterfield says, easing open the back of a Waltz of the Flowers tutu corset to show the hardware that keeps it together.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of prevention: of the 10 little mice, Basterfield says, “We tell them, ‘Hang on to your tail before you go on-stage.’ ”

Basterfield stresses it couldn’t get done without the devoted parent volunteers who help backstage to dress the little soldiers, put makeup on the dancing snowflakes, and ensure the mice have all their cheese. And seeing the Goh Ballet Academy’s young dancers sharing the stage with principals from the New York City Ballet and a live Vancouver Opera Orchestra makes it all worth it, she adds. “We wouldn’t go to this much work if we didn’t see how much the children love to perform.”

The Goh Ballet’s The Nutcracker is at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts from Wednesday (December 19) to December 23.

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