For audiences, attending the ballet is an activity (and, particularly for shows like “The Nutcracker,” often a beloved family tradition) that lasts about two hours. But for the dancers, choreographers, and crew, months of preparation precede opening night.

While many of us marvel at the beautiful costumes worn by dancers in ballets such as “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Don Quixote,” it’s easy to forget that the hair and makeup process for each and every show is a critical part of its success. Before and during each performance, the dancers, makeup artists, and (in some cases) wig experts work together like a well-oiled machine so that every dancer steps on stage with perfect makeup that won’t melt under the bright lights.

Some roles require specialty makeup, says Shelby Adele Rogers, Head of Specialty Makeup at Pacific Northwest Ballet. She cites Mother Ginger as one of the more challenging examples. “We don’t have a ton of time, but we’re transforming a man into a ridiculous, 9-foot-tall, cartoonish female character,” Rogers explains. Joshua Grant, a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet who has played Mother Ginger, emphasizes that makeup is a key part of the costume and fully getting into character. Although he wasn’t nervous about playing Mother Ginger, Grant says he initially didn’t know exactly how he was going to portray the role. But specialty makeup helped put his mind at ease.

“It’s like putting on a mask,” Grant explains. “So any of those insecurities that you have about making a fool of yourself onstage… the stage makeup changes all of that, and puts you in that character of who you’re supposed to be.”

Uko Gorter as Herr Drosselmeier. (Angela Sterling photo)
Uko Gorter as Herr Drosselmeier. (Angela Sterling photo)

Another example of stage makeup creating a transformation is the grandparents in the party scene, who are actually played by teenagers and young adult dancers. “It’s fun for us,” Rogers says. “We make [the young dancers] look old by using transformative old-age makeup.”

While specialty makeup artists transform characters like Mother Ginger and the grandparents, dancers who don’t require specialty makeup are responsible for their own makeup. For example, the dancers in the beloved “Nutcracker” snow and flower scenes don’t require specialty makeup. “They do their regular stage face,” Rogers says. Every year she teaches a class to the company’s newest members so they are well-prepared and equipped to do their “basic stage face.”

Grant adds that, although they’re responsible for their own makeup, younger dancers in the company receive guidance backstage when necessary. “An older dancer or staff member will say, ‘Hey, your eyebrows aren’t as prominent as they should be,’” he explains. “So giving little hints and tips to help people out is how we all figured out how to do our own makeup.”

When dancers step onstage, they’re under bright lights and working up a sweat due to the rigorous nature of the art. Because there’s a lot of sweat involved, Rogers says it’s crucial to use makeup that’s specifically designed for the stage — products like waterproof eyeliner are a godsend. If the right products aren’t used, dancers sweat off their makeup and it has to be reapplied. Rogers has worked hard to find makeup products that can withstand sweat and bright lights for the duration of the show. “It’s really worth the effort because when the makeup stays, the continuity stays for the length of the performance,” she says.

For “The Nutcracker,” typically two makeup and hair specialists run each performance. But other ballets require a much larger team due to wigs, specialty makeup, or both. For “The Sleeping Beauty,” five people applied wigs during each performance while Rogers and one other specialist focused on specialty makeup. There are also ballets like “Emergence,” which involve applying body paint to “tattoo” male dancers’ backs under a time crunch. It’s a challenge, but one that the makeup artists embrace.

“All the artists I’ve brought in [for “Emergence”] love doing that. We do stencils on the dancer’s backs and the makeup for that needs to be done in about five minutes,” she explains. There are about 18 male dancers who require this back painting, but they dance other parts throughout the night so there’s very little time to apply the artwork. Rogers came up with a system to “quickly get the artwork on them,” which is followed by hand-finishing all the detailed bits. “It’s pretty awesome,” she says.

Despite its extremely rigorous nature, ballet dancers are required to make each and every movement appear effortless in order to succeed. Backstage and behind the scenes, people like makeup artists ensure that dancers’ picture-perfect hair and makeup look equally effortless. In reality, it takes an army of talented, organized, and passionate individuals in order to make a show like “The Nutcracker” or “Cinderella” come together seamlessly.

Spend your holidays with PNB! See “The Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s cherished score played live by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, the brilliant PNB dancers, Ian Falconer’s scenery and costumes, and Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall all dressed up for the holidays.