Jaillan Yehia

Sneak Peek: Inside The Costume Closet At The Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Written by Jaillan Yehia

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Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Inside the shoe room at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

It’s every little girl’s dream to play among the piles of colourful tutus and pink satin dance shoes hidden inside a ballet company’s closet – and this big girl’s dream finally came true when I went on a behind the scenes tour of  the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

There were two books I owned as a little girl that I would look at repeatedly in wonderment; one was the story of a unicorn with a ruby hidden beneath it’s horn, the other a book of photographs of beautiful ballerinas. There they were in rehearsal in black leotards and white tights, and on stage, en pointe, wearing pink tutus and matching ribbon-adorned ballet shoes and delicate smiles.

Tutus at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Tutus at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Ballet shoes at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Ballet shoes at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Despite long giving up any notion of the existence of unicorns, or being any better than distinctly average at dance, I discovered that all the silk and tulle quickly reduced me to an excited squealing kid, playing dress up all over again.

It makes sense that the very things which amaze and excite us in childhood will forever hold a special charm; I’ve never shaken off the sense of nostalgia and show-stopping beauty that I associate with ballerinas.

Rows of costumes at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Rows of costumes at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

So I was beyond excited to live out my girlish dream and poke around inside the inner sanctum of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a world-renowned ballet school and company with a rich history dating back to the 1930’s.

A seamstress at work

A seamstress at work at the RWB

Back in the 1950’s Queen Elizabeth gave the RWB her seal of approval making Canada the first Commonwealth country to have a royal ballet company.

Royal Winnipeg Ballet

One of Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s historic costume cases

Since then the company has become a destination for professional and amateur dancers from all over the world. In addition to the main company – who tour with multiple productions throughout the year  – there’s also a well-respected dance school which is open to all, taking 1000 students per year and hosting an adult summer dance program.

Student dance shoes at Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Student dance shoes at Royal Winnipeg Ballet

But the real magic is in the dressmaker’s closet, where piles of beautiful costumes, made from intricate fabric and detailed with jewels are meticulously fitted to each dancer who takes on a role. They’re all laid out on racks just begging to be touched by inquisitive hands.

Fabric at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Fabric at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

I meet one of the experienced wardrobe cutters, Alena Zharska, who has been with the company since 2001 and has the smile and relaxed disposition of someone who adores her job.

Alena Zharska shows off one of the handmade costumes

Alena Zharska shows off one of the handmade costumes

Alena explains that it can take up to 40 hours of careful work to make a single tutu and that while usually the whole team can work together – there are 15 staff and 10 sewing machines – for a principle dancer one seamstress will dedicate herself to a project exclusively.

The layers hidden inside a tutu

The multiple layers hidden inside a tutu

As well as the costumes themselves there’s an entire room devoted just to ballet shoes, a room from which I find it hard to tear myself away.

The Shoe Room at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

The Shoe Room at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

The shoe room: utter girlishness!

The shoe room: utter girlishness!

Here all the principle dancers have their own cubby-hole for their ballet shoes, and staff paint shoes to match the costumes being created for upcoming productions.

Painting ballet shoes to match the dancer's tights

Painting ballet shoes to match the dancer’s tights

Multi-coloured ballet shoes

Dorothy-worthy dance shoes

Once I’ve had my fill of the costume-making tour it’s time to see some real dancers at work, so I head to the viewing room above the main studio.

View from the viewing room at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

View from the observation deck at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

I’m amazed to hear that anyone can turn up at the school and ask to be let into the viewing room, then settle in to watch the world-class dancers practice and pirouette for as long as they like – if I lived in Winnipeg I’d be here all the time.

Posters on the studio walls at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Posters on the studio walls at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

The posters alone could keep you interested for hours, but I’m lucky enough to be invited down to the floor to enjoy an up-close viewing of rehearsals for the upcoming production of  Moulin Rouge overseen by long-time artistic director André Lewis.

Rehearsals for Moulin Rouge at the RWB

Rehearsals for Moulin Rouge at the RWB

Watching the footwork up-close

Watching the footwork up-close

I may not have the naive wonderment of a young girl watching ballet for the first time, but as an adult who understands the unparalleled dedication and hard work which goes into making something appear effortless,  I watch the dancers in absolute awe.

Dance; a liflong lesson in dedication

Dance; a liflong lesson in dedication

This awe is heightened when I see the Valentine weekend production of Romeo & Juliet on stage in full costume, and it’s official: I have fallen in love with ballet all over again.


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