It wouldn’t truly feel like the holidays without the National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker. For many, it’s an annual tradition to get dressed up and head out to see the Christmas classic set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score. Even if you’re like me and toe the line between naughty and nice — and aren’t used to being surrounded by so many children — The Nutcracker will take you to a holiday happy place. With its grandiose production values and dazzling costumes, it’s hard not to be entertained by a sugarplum fairy making a grand entrance out of a Fabergé egg.
I had the great pleasure of spending an hour with Grant Heaps, the assistant wardrobe coordinator for the National Ballet. And while he doesn’t design the intricate costume pieces (most have been around for as long as he has), he has the very important role of being the costume keeper. He’s backstage at every show helping dancers get dressed and is there to restitch, resew and readjust anything that goes awry at the performance.
We meet at the Walter Carsen Centre on Toronto’s waterfront, which houses the rehearsal studios and all the various departments (including wardrobe) in one inspiring building. Heaps shows up looking dapper in striped blazer, gingham shirt and bow tie. “I wear this every day,” he says, “or at least a variation of it.”
Heaps has been at the National Ballet for 20 years, where he ended up after studying fashion, then working on various theatre productions, including Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera.
The studio space is lined with various headpieces, costume bits and photos from the ballet’s past, present and future. When I ask him to name a favourite production, he smiles sweetly, as though he knows he’s about to sound cliché, and says, “The Nutcracker. I’ve been backstage at every single show since it opened [in 1995], and it’s just a really happy show. It’s technically hard enough on the dancers that they don’t get bored, and it’s a big machine that keeps you on your toes.”
When I ask him which is his favourite costume, he pauses before answering, and I can tell he is going through the massive archive in his head. Then he looks to his left at a glittery Beyoncé-esque number and says, “The bee. It’s just super cute.”
He eventually takes me to the storage room, where costumes are kept when they’re not in production. We nerd out for a while, examining the intricate details that go into every single piece, which I wouldn’t have seen watching as an audience member. I can feel the history in the room, thinking about the many ballerinas who have danced in the costumes over the years; it feels like an haute couture salon.
Heaps finds his greatest inspiration in working with the dancers. They are the true muses and bring life to the costumes he works so hard to take care of, he says. “They are such a joy to watch and work with. They’re so independent and extremely disciplined.”
I saw The Nutcracker for the first time last year; in fact, it was the first ballet performance I’d ever seen. As a kid I thought ballet was stuffy and boring. As I get older, my respect and appreciation for it grows stronger. The dancers’ movements seem so effortless, and as an adult one starts to understand the amount of training it takes to achieve that level of strength, grace and discipline. Even at a fitting with dancers Giorgio Galli and Joseph Steinauer, I am out of breath just watching the positions they are able to hold for our photographer. My behind-the-scenes experience gives me a new level of appreciation for the passion and effort of people like Heaps who are a critical force behind each performance.
After leaving the Four Seasons Centre, I immediately want to see the show again, knowing there will be details I will notice for the first time. But I also can’t wait for my favourite parts from last year: the land of snow, which is all glitter, snow and tutus; and the pivotal performance from the dancing bear on rollerblades — pure entertainment. Being a style guy, I’m constantly trying to break tradition, but there are some things that should stick. Shortly after my interview with Heaps, a friend surprises me with show tickets! Looks like a tradition has been set.
Special thanks to Heaps and the National Ballet for allowing us to peek behind the curtain.