Backstage at The National Ballet: The costume tricks behind their latest, Four Seasons and Emergence

National Ballet of Canada Emergence Four Seasons
Photography by Bruce Zinger, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada

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Ballet costumes are much like a magician’s magic trick. Sitting in the audience, you see flawless and breathtaking garments masterfully secured on the dancers as they pirouette across the stage, but backstage, these costumes tell an entirely different story.

Although a magician is never supposed to reveal their secrets, The National Ballet of Canada allowed let us in on a few tricks of the costume trade as we got up close and personal with the costumes from Emergence and The Four Seasons—which runs through March 24 at the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts in Toronto.

The two ballets, which are showcased together, are vastly different in their choreography. The Four Seasons dates back to 1997 and follows the cycle of a man’s life from birth to death with each season representing a time in his life. In Emergence the dancers act almost insect-like in a dark ballet that takes place in a subterranean universe. If you were expecting tutus and glitter, this is the wrong ballet for you.

Backstage is wardrobe coordinator, Barb de Kat, and assistant wardrobe coordinator, Grant Heaps tailoring, sizing, and prepping costumes for the next show (and laundry). The duo fits each dancer so that every piece is just right for the performance, sometimes with only a few minutes to do a fast change backstage. Just to give you an idea of how fast, in The Four Seasons five men change from summer to autumn costumes in about minute and a half. “They add a shirt, a jacket, and a belt,” said Heaps and de Kat continues, “Each dancer gets a dresser to change them. That’s how we speed up quick changes—more people.”

Innovation is the name of the game when it comes to ballet costumes. Hidden zippers allow for sleeves to be cleaned, mesh half-shoes make the ballerina look barefoot but still able to spin and seams are created to look like boning in bodysuits but also provide comfort. All of these details come together to create illusions of intricacy but makes it easier for Heaps and de Kat to care for costumes that have to last for seasons to come.

One of the most enchanting parts of a ballet is how effortless the movement and costumes appear but now we know that in the wings is a small army of people bringing the illusion of ease to the viewer.

To buy tickets for The Four Seasons & Emergence visit national.ballet.ca