Thanks to Holiday House (the publisher of the new picture book Ballerina Swan), I have a very special interview to share with you today! I recently had the pleasure of speaking on the phone with the book's author, Allegra Kent, about her experiences both as a children's author and as a prima ballerina.
Ms. Kent joined the New York City Ballet when she was just 15 years old and danced many famous roles created for her by choreographer George Balanchine over the years. She retired in 1981 but has stayed active in the dance community, most recently teaching ballet at Barnard College in New York City, where she resides.
Although Ballerina Swan is her first book for children, Ms. Kent is not new to the publishing world. After she retired from the New York City Ballet, she wrote two books for adults--The Dancer's Body Book, which was published in 1984, and her autobiography Once a Dancer, which was published in 1997 and re-released in 2009. I hope you enjoy the following excerpts from my conversation with the sweet, lovely, and legendary Allegra Kent...
In addition to your wonderful career as a dancer, you are quite an accomplished author. What similarities, if any, have you found between dancing and writing?
When I write, I try to make my sentences pirouette. Words can create an atmosphere or scene, and writing actually has a lot of movement and musicality in it. It should sound like music. It has rhythm and description that are visual. You can see the action that is happening. And of course dancing has all those qualities, too.
I read that a real-life swan was part of the inspiration for Ballerina Swan. Can you tell us a little more about that?
I was watching a swan swimming on a pond, and I thought, oh my gosh, ballerinas want to dance with swan-like qualities. There are so many swan themes in ballets—maidens who become swans, Swan Lake, and The Dying Swan, which was such a signature piece for Anna Pavlova. And I thought, oh, what if a swan wanted to become a ballerina? It was a kind of reverse relationship, and the swan became a character in my children’s book.
Before we go on, I want to share a YouTube video of you and your editors, Grace Maccarone and Pam Glauber, talking about your idea for the book. I think my readers will also enjoy seeing the three of you perform a port de bra together in the video!
Now back to our interview! So there are two dance teachers in the book—Madam Myrtle and Miss Willow. And then there’s a choreographer named Mr. Balletski. How did you come up with the names of these characters?
Madam Myrtle has a little bit of a severe sound. Not totally, though, because there’s a wonderful tree called the crape myrtle that’s gorgeous. Madame Myrtle is an excellent teacher, but she has an exacting approach to the art and a narrow view of who should be in ballet class. Miss Willow of course is willowy, and much more pliant than Madam Myrtle. She is a tree—a willow that flows in the breeze, like a weeping willow. She’s much more accepting of a creature who looks so different but does have the desire to dance. And then we have Mr. Balletski, whose name is ballet and Balanchine mixed together. The ski at the end gives it that Russian name. Like Nijinsky.
The students in the book audition for a school performance of Swan Lake, and many of them are both eager and fearful to find out if they were given a part in the ballet. Did you draw from any personal experiences when you wrote about the audition?
Actually, I never had to audition. Balanchine just chose me. He looked at the students in the School of American Ballet and invited me to join the New York City Ballet. I was 15. This was 1953, and I’d never been in any kind of school performance, recital, or anything. I had no experience except in the classroom, but I worked very hard in rehearsals to be as good as I could be.
I noticed that the book is dedicated in part to the memory of Balanchine, who you say “understood unusual casting.” Do you feel you were...
Unusual? Well, Balanchine liked my style, and that made me unusual to him. And he created some fantastic roles for me. He cast me in a dance called The Seven Deadly Sins. And also a dance called Bugaku. And also as a sleepwalker in La Sonnamula. Balanchine once choreographed for a circus as well--a little interlude for elephants. These were really young circus elephants, and the music was by Stravinsky. So he did believe in unusual casting.
Did you have any role in choosing Emily Arnold McCully as the illustrator for the book?
Actually, I walked into my editor Grace's office and saw some illustrations on her sideboard. I said, I love these. Could this person be my illustrator? And Grace said, well, that’s Emily Arnold McCully. I just don’t know if she’s available. It was so serendipitous. She wanted to do the illustrations, and somehow she fit me into her schedule. I love what she did with them. They’re so much what I envisioned, except not exactly because everyone has his or her own imagination. I especially love that first page, where the swan is looking in the window. The double spread. The city. The pond. The little ducks. And then the plants that grow around the pond. Emily is superb.
I noticed that Emily Arnold McCully’s dedication in the book simply says “ For Allegra.” Is she referring to you?
Yes. Oh my gosh! When I saw that, I was thrilled out of my mind. We didn’t interact on the book’s illustrations at all, but I did meet her. She had actually never drawn a swan as a character or drawn ballet dancers before, but she loves ballet and loved the work of the New York City Ballet. I was so moved and touched that she dedicated the drawings to me.
I have one more question I’m curious about. I read that you don’t perform anymore, but do you still dance?
I actually don’t dance anymore…although I do dance in my living room and when I cook! And of course I teach, and I watch dance performances. When I swim, I dance in the swimming pool—port de bra, grand battement, plié, relevé, all the movements. And then walking down the streets of New York City, you have to have a sense of choreography!
Thank you so much, Ms. Kent, for sharing your experiences with me and my readers. It was so nice to talk with you! And thank you to Holiday House for an advanced review copy of Ballerina Swan and for helping me set up my interview. Holiday House has also put together a nice package about the book and its creation here.
This post is also part of the kidlitosphere's Interview Wednesday. If you're interested in reading more interviews related to children's literature, pirouette on over to The Flatt Perspective, where Lizann is hosting this month!