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Meet François Barbeau, the man behind the Nutcracker costumes

12/19/2014 01:45 EST | Updated 02/18/2015 05:59 EST
Midway through the Grands Ballets Canadiens run of the Nutcracker at Place des Arts, 79-year old costume designer FrançoisBarbeau is already mulling over improvements to costumes for next year’s Nutcracker.

"Every year we sit at the back and we look at the run through and we decide what we could do to make it even better. If I could, I would redesign all the production why because I’m still alive and I love to do it."

I met up with him at his workshop on St-Viateur Street in Montreal’s Mile End.

The gymnasium-sized workroom is stacked floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes of bodices, skirts, dresses, hat forms, shoes, some dating back to the 1800s — samples Barbeau keeps for inspiration and historical accuracy.

Barbeau rifles through his first sketches to see what he might change, looking for comfort from new fabrics, sparkle from light-catching fabrics, all the while deepening his understanding of the importance of strong colour.

Barbeau’s costumes were inspired by a trip to a Nutcracker performance with his own daughter years ago.

"When my daughter was young, I used to take her to see Nutcracker but it was another production and she loved it and thought it was so wonderful. I was always frustrated it lacked colours. It was alright, but in my imagination, as she was almost dancing in the aisle, I was just trying to figure out what I would do."

Shortly after that, in 1987, choreographer Fernand Nault asked Barbeau to do just that.  

For almost thirty years now Barbeau has been perfecting the costumes he first created for Nault’s choreography. Each year, the company sets aside about $150,000 for improvements to sets and costumes.

Every year, he and wardrobe mistress Mélanie Ferraro go back to Barbeau’s atelier to rethink one of the costumes. Last year they traded the heavy braid on the Nutcracker costume for something lighter and easier for the dancer to wear.

This year, it’s the reindeer costume that attracted their attention.

Even though the reindeer appear only briefly in the ballet, Barbeau wanted to make their white leotards more flattering and comfortable.

He restructured the cut and added colour to side panels.

"We’re having stretch velvet [and] we use a different shade. Instead of having pure white, we're using icy blue and a little darker one that will give shape to the dancers that wear it."

The teenage dancers say the crushed velvet makes them feel they’re wearing real reindeer fur.

A legacy of design

Barbeau was already a leading figure in Canadian costume design.

He’d worked at the Stratford Festival and for the Comédie-Française.

He won an Emmy in 1971 for Best Artistic Direction for Claude Jutra’s feature film, Kamouraska. He’s since won an Emmy for the Cirque du Soleil show Dralion (1999) and Wintuk (2007). Barbeau also worked with Robert Lepage on two European productions La Célestine (2005) and the opera A Rake’s Progress (2007).

He’s just designed the costumes for the French translation of Steve Galluccio’s St. Leonard Chronicles which opens this week at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe.

But it’s the Nutcracker that holds a special place in Barbeau’s heart.

"People talk to me about Nutcracker like it’s a revelation in some ways," he said. 

"You watch these wonderful technical things on television where people are flying and everything. But Nutcracker is still magic."

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