Learn About Ballet

Behind the Scenes

Ballet is an art form like no other. Insight into what happens behind the scenes can be a great way to gain a brand new perspective.

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Before a ballet is ready to be performed on stage, hundreds of hours of work take place behind the scenes.

Ballet dancers are a very elite group of athletes. They train for many years before becoming professional dancers and once they join a company their training does not end. Dancers' bodies need to be extremely strong and flexible to execute the demanding technique of ballet so they must practice and rehearse every day to keep their bodies in top physical condition. In daily ballet class, rehearsals and performances, a dancer's body is pulled and stretched in many different directions. When executing grand leaps and jumps, their feet, knees and backs are subject to further abuse by landing on very hard concrete floors. As a remedy, most dancers dance on specially constructed dance floors to absorb the impact of jumping. For every minute of dancing you see on the stage, there has been an hour of rehearsal.

The setting of the stage in a ballet helps to evoke the time, place or atmosphere of the production. All of the sets, scenery and props used by the National Ballet are made at the company's production workshop, a large building the size of an airplane hanger. From the initial drawings made by the set designer, scenic artists, carpenters and electricians work together to bring the setting to the stage. Lighting design is then added to enhance various aspects of the production.

Often the same person who designs the setting of a production will also design the costumes. The designer will start with a drawing of what they think the costume will look like and then the National Ballet's wardrobe department will make a pattern, choose material, sew it together, decorate the costume and finally fit it on the dancers. Ballet costumes have to be carefully reinforced so that the dancers can move easily in them and not worry about them coming apart while they are dancing.

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When performing in a theatre, the National Ballet must transport all of its own equipment to the location including wigs, costumes, sets, props, lighting equipment and the specially designed dance floor. Many of these items are packed in wooden crates to keep them from being damaged during the trip. Very delicate items like tutus are packed in wicker hampers called "skips" for transport. All of these items are loaded into tractor-trailers and shipped to the theatre where they are stored backstage. Often items from several different ballets live backstage until it is time for the ballet to be performed.

When dancers rehearse in the studio a pianist plays the music for them. It is usually at the dress rehearsal that the dancers hear the orchestra for the first time. It is also at the dress rehearsal that the dancers have their final opportunity to try on their costumes, work with the props and scenery and practice the steps on the stage. Everyone's hard work is rewarded the moment the curtain rises and the ballet begins.

Pointe Shoes

Female ballet dancers are able to stand on the tips of their toes by wearing a special shoe called a pointe shoe. Each dancer at The National Ballet of Canada is specially fitted for their pointe shoes and have their shoes made perfectly to fit their feet.

The shoemaker uses a mold of the dancer's foot size and then places layers of glue and canvas over the mold to make the toe area into a "box" to support the foot. The shoe is then hardened in a very hot oven and finally covered with pink satin. The sole of the shoe is made of hard leather which prevents it from bending too freely, and also helps to support the feet as the dancer rises up and down off their toes.

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To keep the shoe on securely, the dancers sew satin ribbons to the sides and tie them tightly around their ankles. The dancers also cut the satin off the tips of the toes and apply rosin (a powdered substance also used by stringed instrument players and baseball players) to the tip and bottom of the shoe so they do not slip on the dance floor.

When the dancer gets a new pair of shoes, they are very hard and would be uncomfortable and noisy to dance in, so the dancers spend time breaking in their shoes by gently hammering them or wedging them in a door frame. Wearing new shoes for ballet class and in rehearsals can also help to soften them to be more comfortable for a performance. When dancing, sweat and body heat soften the shoe even more, to where it can no longer support the dancer's foot. Pointe shoes generally last a maximum of eight hours, depending on the difficulty of the choreography, however some dancers can go through one pair of pointe shoes in a single performance.

Ribbons, Jet Glue, pliers and thread – every female dancer has their own unique pointe shoe prep routine and First Soloist Tina Pereira has hers down to a science.

Professional dancers have spent 8 to 10 years training to perform on pointe and have built up calluses on their feet to prevent excessive discomfort. Some dancers choose to cover their toes with lambs wools or toe tape to protect their feet from uncomfortable blisters.

Male dancers typically do not wear pointe shoes. They wear canvas ballet slippers or special ballet boots made of leather that are flexible enough for them to move and jump in.

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Top image credit: Artists of the Ballet. Photo by Karolina Kuras.