A behind-the-seams look at Les Grands Ballets de Montréal's The Nutcracker

In preparation for Les Grands Ballets' 1987 edition of The Nutcracker, well-known Quebec costume designer François Barbeau designed and oversaw the creation of more than 300 bespoke costumes.

It took nine months of full-time work for the ballet company's costume workshop to bring Barbeau's vision to life.

Les Grand Ballets' presentation of the Christmas classic is now in its 56th edition, but the outfits worn by dancers on Place des Arts' Wilfrid-Pelletier stage are still the late Barbeau's creations — many of them the original costumes.

"The Nutcracker — it's a show that is an art piece, a restoration of costumes, of garments," said Mélanie Ferrero, head of the company's costume workshop.

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Ferrero, who has worked in the costume shop for 15 years, cut her teeth with the Cirque du Soleil on a two-year tour of Europe.

"I learned everything there, from painting costumes to repairing, to shoe maintenance, wig maintenance — everything," she said.

A new costume each year

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Repairs and touch-ups to the original costumes are a big part of Ferrero and her team's job. However, every year, the costume shop makes a new costume — an exact replica of Barbeau's original design.

"It's a lot of love and care," she said.

"It's very magical still onstage," said Ferrero of Barbeau's designs. "A lot of people pass through these costumes.... It's like each piece is an artwork, and we need to make sure it's steady, solid and durable as much as it can be for 30 shows."

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The Nutcracker features 165 characters and more than 350 costumes.

According to Les Grands Ballets, $180,000 is invested in revamping part of the set and caring for the show's costumes each year.

Ferrero said it takes a seamstress one month of full-time work to hand-stitch a new tutu and the bodice for a dancer.

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All of the costumes used in the show were designed to be adjusted for use year after year.

With different dancers each year, pleats, zippers, hidden seams and hooks are built-in to make fitting adjustments and costume sharing smoother.

Since the children in the show double up on roles, alternating night by night, their costumes' hemlines can be adjusted using hidden zippers depending on the height of each child.

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The costume department also a team of dressers who have to do on-the-spot repairs after every show.

Ferrero said it's not unusual for sequins to go flying off dresses and crinolines to be torn on lighting equipment backstage.

"Something will rip or something will start to be unstitched," said Ferrero. "Every night there's retouching."

"This is the life of a tutu on stage."

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One of the most elaborate costumes in the show belongs to the King of Sweets. 

It weighs at least 10 kilograms, even though it appears onstage to be puffy and light.

That handmade costume is valued at around $15,000.

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Behind the scenes, headpieces and wigs are stacked in a row and makeshift dressing rooms are organized on loading docks.

The production uses vodka in a spray bottle to kill bacteria on the costumes, because they can't simply be thrown in the wash.

The costumes are dry-cleaned after each run, however, between shows, alcohol is the best way to keep the garments smelling fresh, said Ferrero.

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Ferrero worked with Barbeau before his death in 2016 and said he relished the chance to tweak things and re-imagine his original concepts.

She said it's nice to see his legacy carried on as the intricate outfits grace stages in Montreal and Quebec City year after year.

"I was lucky to have the chance to work with him," she said. "He taught me a lot."

The Nutcracker by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens runs at Place des Arts from Dec. 12 to 30.