Behind Nutcracker’s Spectacular Costumes: A Conversation with Paul Daigle

In anticipation of the return of Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker, we spoke to RWB’s longtime Costume Designer Paul Daigle to learn more about the beautiful costumes in this iconic holiday classic.


Ballet BC: What was your vision and approach in designing costumes for RWB’s Nutcracker?

Paul Daigle: In 1998 (I can’t believe it has been 24 years!), the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Artistic Director André Lewis asked me to design the costumes for a new production of The Nutcracker for the company. The RWB already had a very successful and beautiful production of Nutcracker choreographed by John Neumeier with stunning costumes and decor designed by Jürgen Rose, a production I had the opportunity to perform in during my time as a dancer with the RWB.

The RWB’s new Nutcracker would have two choreographers, Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon, and Artistic Director André Lewis had his own visions for the new production as well. I had already worked with set designer Brian Perchaluk, and I knew it would be a fun and creative collaboration.

It was decided that the setting would be the city of Winnipeg in the year 1913, on the brink of the Great War. Winnipeg at the time was a major Canadian centre for trade and commerce…so that would be my jumping off point. Nina Menon choreographed Act One and the final scene in Act Two. Her creativity and imagination sets the stage for the production and gives it a sweet and poignant ending.

Galina Yordanova choreographed Act Two. The late Madame Yordanova had a rich knowledge of the Russian Ballet tradition and was a highly regarded and accomplished pedagogue and répétiteur. Madame Yordanova’s Act Two embodies this rich tradition, I was careful to not stray too far from this aesthetic, especially in her Waltz of the Flowers.


What is your creation process like? How long does it take to complete a costume from design to finish?

PD: For me, designing the costumes for a full-length ballet is a work of imagination and a physical endeavour. The costume count is usually close to, and sometimes over 100 not counting the required designs for wigs, jewelry, accessories and boots and shoes. Head to toe!

I hand draw a complete set of preliminary designs to be presented to the choreographer for discussion. I then return to the drawings reworking the designs as per my discussions. This back and forth with the choreographer will continue as I work toward completing the final design drawings. This part of the design process was around 4 or 5 months. It never seems like enough time.

Once the drawings have been finalized and approved by the choreographer, I present the designs to the Director of Wardrobe. Once construction materials have been chosen and collected together in the wardrobe workshop space, cut and construction of the costumes usually takes place over an 8 to 10 week time frame. The entire process, from preliminary drawings to costume completion, took a little over a year.


How many people are behind each creation? Tell us about your team and collaborators.

PD: Anne Armit, Director of Wardrobe, accompanied me to Toronto to purchase the fabric and other materials for the production of the costumes (right down to small items like buttons, decorative trim and beads), a large and daunting task made much easier by Anne’s expertise. Anne also coordinated the construction for every aspect of each costume design as well as accompanying me to all fittings.

The talented Robert Laflamme and Evan Stillwater tailored the menswear for the production and the amazing Angie White, Margaret Lamb, and Norma Lachance were the head cutters responsible for the ladieswear and tutus. Barry Malenko also worked as a cutter on the production and Brenda Belmonte was responsible for accessories and decoration. There was also an extensive list of boots and shoes custom-made for this production.

Melinda ”Lindy” Clark, an accomplished and talented milliner, built the headdresses for this production, spectacular sparkling creations! Richard Mucha and Sharon Ryman (Canadian Opera Company) built the hand knotted wigs, beards and moustaches for this production, beautifully crafted for form and function. Lorraine O’Leary, Director of Wardrobe at The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and her team built the children’s wear and military uniforms for Act One. The talented and creative Larry Demedash and Kari Hagness also with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre were responsible for bringing the mice, the audience favourite Filbert the Bear and the RCMP horses all to life.

Thanks to Shannon Lovelace and Kelly Ruth, hundreds of meters of fabric were hand dyed and matched to specific colours for each costume, a demanding and laborious task requiring physical stamina as well as an exacting eye and technical expertise.


What was your favourite or most rewarding part about working on this project? What was the most challenging?

PD: One of my most memorable and rewarding times during this project was the production week leading to the premiere performance. The production premiered at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, an out-of-town opening, and a huge challenge for a large production like this.

For any premiere there are always numerous aspects of the costumes that require finish work, last minute alterations and adjustments to wigs, headdresses and shoes. Fortunately, many of the team were able to travel to Ottawa and worked tirelessly in unfamiliar surroundings to pull the whole thing together for a critically successful world premiere.


Have the costumes been updated or changed over the years since they first premiered in 1999? In what ways?

PD: Alena Zharska is now RWB’s Director of Wardrobe. Alena is also an amazingly talented cutter with an unerring eye for fit, proportion and function, particularly essential in the construction of costumes for dance. Alena has now, for the last number of years, taken the Nutcracker costumes under her wing and continues to keep the designs alive with each rebuild or refurbishment. There have been changes over the last 20-something years as well… I think my favourite is the delightfully cute and cuddly baby polar bears.


Are there any little-known facts about the costumes that you can share?

PD: The fabric for the Mouse King’s costume (cut and tailored by the amazing Evan Stillwater) is an expensive Versace fabric, and in my opinion worth every penny – especially if you amortize it over 24 years!


What can audiences coming to this year’s Nutcracker expect?

PD: Expect a bit of Canadian history mixed with the magic of classical ballet, swirled together with Tchaikovsky’s breathtaking music – all sprinkled with sparkling snow.


Tickets for Nutcracker, November 23 + 24, 2024 at Surrey’s Bell Performing Arts Centre and December 13 – 15, 2024 at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre are on sale now.

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Princess Clara. Sketch by Paul Daigle.
Nutcracker Prince. Sketch by Paul Daigle.
Mouse King. Sketch by Paul Daigle.