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The classic story features some of the ballet world’s most lavish craftwork, including 284 pairs of shoes for more than 70 dancers

Ballets almost always guarantee a riotous spectacle of sound and movement. With the National Ballet’s remounting of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you can add a dizzying palette of colour. The show, whose premiere run in 2011 remains the highest-grossing mainstage production in the National Ballet of Canada’s history, returns to the stage March 6-17.

The classic story, choreographed by the masterful Christopher Wheeldon, features some of the ballet world’s most lavish craftwork, from the sumptuous sets to the intricate costuming, including the whopping 284 pairs of shoes that outfit more than 70 dancers.

“When you hear that Alice is happening, because it takes so much to keep up with the production, you take a big breath,” says Lacey Hammond Harrington, with a simultaneous laugh and sigh. “But it is very fun.”

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Lacey Hammond Harrington’s office at the NBC doubles as a footwear archive, including boots that cost thousands, demanding a rewear. Her process begins with her taking measurements of every dancer, because whether the shoes are reworn, bought off the rack or custom-made, they must fit exactly right.

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Harrington not only co-ordinates and organizes every pair of shoes in each NBC production, but fits each dancer, and then paints, dyes and embellishes each shoe that hits the stage.

Harrington is the National Ballet’s footwear co-ordinator and dye workroom manager, responsible not only for the quintessential pointe shoes, but the heeled court shoes, Wellington boots, tap shoes, gold slippers and so much more.

Harrington not only co-ordinates and organizes every pair of shoes in each NBC production, but fits each dancer, and then paints, dyes and embellishes each shoe that hits the stage. After all, flamboyant characters such as the White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter demand such attention to detail. While most might be familiar with the rabbit ears, the top hat and the endless tea cups, a tremendous amount of work goes into the shoes they twirl in on.

“The colours are pretty set in stone because they, for the most part, have to match the tights, the colour of which has been chosen by the designer,” explains Harrington. Dancers want their shoes to match their tights “because they ... want their leg to look as long and beautiful as possible; that’s my job.”

In her dye room, where she concocts her colour recipes, Harrington takes every detail into consideration, including a dancers’ skin tones and how different textures and materials dye differently.
When finalizing a shade, Harrington will mix a set of ribbons and dyes in a large pot on the stove.

Most ballet-goers are likely unaware of how much work goes into creating and maintaining a dancer’s footwear.

For more than 10 years, Harrington has been working in this position at the NBC, nestled among shelves upon shelves of pointe shoes. A master of colour theory, for whom creativity runs in the family (her parents were artists), she’s a craftsperson through and through.

Harrington begins by taking measurements of each and every dancer. If nothing existing fits, she orders it or builds it, or sends measurements off to a U.K.-based boot maker.

From there, she mixes her paints and gets to work dyeing shoes, tights, elastics and ribbons. The only time Harrington really gets to see her work in action before showtime is the rehearsal, and then there’s no going back.

To mitigate the powerful chemical fumes, Harrington uses on an extraction fan in the tiny room where she paints each character’s pointe shoes, surrounded by dyes for leather, satin and suede.
Harrington blow-dries each ribbon, checking to see how the dye job colour-matches with the tights drying nearby.
A pair of dyed and embellished ballet shoes for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland hang amongst other costume pieces for the production.

All in all, Harrington’s job can be quite physically demanding, from hauling metres of fabric to working amid dye fumes, but her passion runs deep, evidenced alone in her “bible,” a thick notebook crammed full of scrawled notes on every shade and shoe.

“It becomes my everyday,” she says. “At some points, I tell myself, you have to go home, you have to eat. But then I’ll think about it while I’m sleeping, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and be like, ‘Purple! That’s it!’ ”

While it might be one of the more underexposed artistic processes behind the scenes of the NBC, footwear and dyeing is clearly one of the more intricate elements in creating an effective production. To bring one of the most colourful stories of all time to life, it’s essential.

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Utility shelves and crates hold house paints from productions past (Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet), while a set of freshly painted pointe shoes dries on a rack.

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