Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Nutcracker prepares

English National Ballet mounted a new production of the Nutcracker this winter. I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks working on the preparations. ENB have a base in kent were they store all their costumes and sets and keep their workshops. This was where we spent our preparation time, costumes were delivered and we labelled mountains of tights, pants, shirts and hats.  For the first time, some rehearsals were held there too.

There is a wonderful mixture of costumes in the Nutcracker, the mice heads I found particularly good. Large shiny eyes, huge teeth and wiry hair. They were quite light and had lots of holes and gaps for the dancers to see through. The tails too were stunning, the adult male tales are attached to a jockstrap worn over their tights. The children's tales are on a strong velcro strap.

Some of my time was spent hand sewing crinoline net on the back of hair decorations. The crin as it is commonly known is stiff and hairpins are secured to the head through this. Most costume hats that will not be removed during a show will be secured this way. Crin comes in various colours so can be matched to the hair or wig of the wearer so as to camouflage it. 

The soldiers hats are kept in place with an elastic chin strap. These are usually covered in flesh coloured pancake make-up and the top edges of elastic darkened with felt pen to match the wearers sideburns.

In an early scene ice skaters take to the stage. These skates worked on large ball bearings. They were very heavy but made a convincing effect in the scene. 

The level of detail and embellishment on the costumes is stunning. This production will be remounted for years to come so the costumes have to be strong enough to withstand a lot of wear and tear. 

Most of the costumes are made to fit several bodies as the casts change constantly and dancers may play several different parts in one week. For example, say there are 10 mice costumes, At ENB the costumes have a number written in the corner of the label. Wardrobe have a list of which dancers fit which costumes, checking which dancers are playing mice for that performance the costumes are allotted to the correct dancers dressing room. 

So dancer A can fit in costume 3, 7 or 8. Dancer B fits 3, 7 and 9 and dancer C 1, 4 and 8 etc. It is a kind of costume Sudoku and a casting can change a little before curtain up due to injury so the wardrobe team are kept very much on their toes, especially during a busy Christmas season when the schedule has two shows a day for much of the week.

In a previous post I wrote about the horse costumes on Dancing on ice, I didn't realize I would be featuring horses quite so soon again. The toy soldiers during their battle with the Mouse king appear briefly on these beautiful creations. Having been on stage already the dancers have just a few bars of music to get off stage into their horses and back on again.  The horses are set very carefully on the floor so the dancers can step straight into them then pull the braces over their shoulders. They are then handed a sword and away they go.

For the final dress rehearsals and then performances we moved into The Coliseum on St Martin's Lane in Covent Garden. This is were decisions are made about were quick changes should take place and fine tuning of scene-changes.  Everyone is tired from the long days rehearsing. In my opinion having worked on Ballet, Opera, Theatre, comedy and all sorts of light entertainment, Ballet is the one performing art where every department has it equally hard. I don't want to put actors or anyone else down but the schedule that Ballet dancers work to is incredible. It is more than a profession it is a vocation and as you can tell I am rather in awe.

A week after being backstage for the opening night I was lucky enough to see The Nutcracker from the audience perspective, so often impossible when working on a show. The Ballet was magical, the costumes looked stunning and the dancing breathtaking. I do hope some of you had the chance to see it too, I look forward to any comments from those of you who did. Later in 2011 Sky Arts will be showing a documentary all about English National Ballet so do look out for that. 


  1. Hi Mo,
    What a fabulous post, thank you so much for sharing. The costumes are amazing & I want one of those mice heads...wearing one of those would definitely get me a seat on the tube ;)
    I've only ever seen one ballet in my entire life, which is shameful really, considering hubby & I have been living in London for over ten years now.
    Note to self: MUST DO BETTER!
    Thank for your comment on my blog & I hope you've had a fab Christmas.

  2. It's been such a refreshing change to work on this new production, I really think the costumes are beautiful.

    Although, having said that, I will be very glad when it's over ;)

    Thank you for blogging about it all and it was lovely to see you again!


  3. OMG, that's so cool!! The masks on the first pics are scary!!


  4. Splendid stuff Mo! Really bringing it all to life.Fab pics too.xx

  5. Woww thanks for sharing :) It was very interesting to look through the pics :D


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