A Christmas revival: backstage at The Royal Ballet

For many, the festive season just isn’t complete without a visit to The Royal Ballet’s production of  The Nutcracker. And it’s the company’s costume department which plays a pivotal role in bringing the iconic ballet back to life for another year

Backstage at the Royal Opera House lies a labyrinth of workrooms and corridors, all bustling with rail upon rail of dresses, tutus and waistcoats. Although it’s barely turned November when I visit the company’s costume department, there’s already a festive feel in the air as the team are gearing up for the most important period of the company’s season: Christmas.

I’m permitted just a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes before the perfected costumes and choreography are thrust into the limelight. A little way into one of the workshops, a huge grey mouse head sits atop a mannequin covered with an embroidered waistcoat. With a headdress made of gold lamé ruffles and a dozen miniature mice, the costume of the Mouse King commands a formidable presence, even without its wearer. The team inspect it carefully, puzzling over one particular area of the king’s waistcoat. Their attention is understandable given that it’s one of the most recognisable characters from the company’s famed Christmas classic, The Nutcracker.

The Mouse King in The Nutcracker © Johan Persson
The Mouse King in The Nutcracker © Johan Persson

Peter Wright’s iconic 1984 production has become an essential part of the festive season for audiences and the company alike, and this year will mark its 21st outing. Set to Tchaikovsky’s original 1892 score, the production has retained its traditional aesthetic, a large part of which is down to the dedication and craftsmanship of the costume department.

Everything about the production remains virtually unchanged since its gala performance, from choreography and staging, right down to the colour of the ballet shoes and fabrics. Eight weeks before the run begins, around 600 costumes are brought out from a storage facility in Wales and transferred to Covent Garden, where the revival team prepare them for their next outing. Although each costume is made with strong cotton or calico as a hardy base, there’s much work to be done to get the pieces stage-ready.

‘Some costumes really inform the movement… as soon as the dancers put it on, they transform’

Delicate embellishments are sewn on by hand, sleeves are unstitched and resized, patches of fabric are re-dyed and replaced, all with great care, fine attention to detail and showing a deep level of reverence for the original designs. Each costume comes with a bag containing samples of all the fabrics and materials used in earlier productions, which the team must refer to when they alter or replace any element of the costume. Stacked along the walls of the workrooms are hundreds of files, or ‘Bibles’, which contain the original designs of Julia Trevelyan Oman. Since the designer passed away 10 years ago, this is the closest the team can get to a guide of how the costumes should look to achieve the ultimate festive finish.

Fabric Store, Costume Department © ROH 2011
Fabric store in the costume department © ROH 2011

And though the team follow the original designs, there is some room for ingenuity: ‘A big part of our job is to discretely change things to adjust to the requirements of the dancers, whilst sticking to the designs,’ says Elizabeth King, head of revival costume workshop. Having worked at the company for a decade, King has found ways of adapting costumes to each year’s cast of dancers. Male dancers in particular have become more muscular since the outfits were first made. To accommodate this, sleeves are removed and sewn onto Lycra tunics to allow dancers to perform lifts with ease, and small pieces of mesh are stitched into the seams to add stretch, while retaining a sleek silhouette. ‘Some costumes really inform the movement,’ says King, ‘it changes the way they stand – as soon as they put it on they transform.’

We brush past a long line of smaller red outfits, the soldier costumes for young students from The Royal Ballet School. King mentions that The Nutcracker holds a particular significance for the company’s adult dancers, many of whom have grown up through the production: students who one played soldiers and mice often find themselves in the lead roles years later.

Adding to the weight of history, each costume bears the names of previous company members. Names of ballet stars like Lesley Collier and Antoinette Sibley (now a guest coach at The Royal Ballet) are permanently scrawled onto the labels. ‘I’ve seen men arguing over Jonathan Cope’s costume before,’ laughs King.

Francesca Hayward, Paul Kay, Tristan Dyer and Alexander Campbell in The Nutcracker © Tristram Kenton, ROH 2013
Francesca Hayward, Paul Kay, Tristan Dyer and Alexander Campbell in The Nutcracker © Tristram Kenton, ROH 2013

Although much of the team’s work is meticulously detailed, it all culminates in a mammoth undertaking. The 25-strong revivals team work not only on The Nutcracker, but also juggle tasks for other productions, which this season include Jewels, The Rite of Spring and The Royal Opera House’s Carmen. It’s very much a collaborative effort: whilst the revivals team works on bringing the company’s classic productions back to life through the necessary alterations, there are separate departments for hats and jewellery, wigs and make-up, ballet shoes, and dyeing, as well as separate teams to maintain the costumes pre- and post- performance. The company places value on the very specific skills of its employees, which evidently helps result in such sumptuous productions.

‘It’s the whole image of Christmas everyone loves to see’

This season presented new challenges, as The Nutcracker was broadcast to cinemas for the first time, reaching 1,100 venues in 29 countries. The advent of the stage close-up is something that the revival team has had to consider when making their alterations: ‘There are a few nuts and bolts, things you’d never expect to see that you will see on camera,’ says King.

And although it’s tempting to be swept up in the emotional attachment to the production, the financial implications of the show’s success cannot be underestimated. The Nutcracker is the go-to seasonal classic for ballet companies the world over, powering them through even the roughest of financial times. At the time of writing, nearly every show in the production’s run had sold out. So long as audiences keep coming back to The Nutcracker, so too will the company.

Surprisingly,  the first ever performance of The Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1892 received a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences. But from those shaky beginnings, The Royal Ballet’s version has firmly established itself as an essential festive treat. As King puts it: ‘it’s the whole image of Christmas everyone loves to see.’