Ballet of the Elephants


Sparking watercolors-and-ink illustrations dance across the page and spill out onto a horizontal foldout of elephants and ballerinas spotlighted together--in the true story of "Circus Polka," choreographed in 1942 by George Balanchine, with music by Igor Stravinsky and performances by John Ringling North's elephants. Robert Andrew Parker brings his love of theater, dance, and costume to this captivating story. Leda Schubert's background note includes black-and-white photos of ...

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Sparking watercolors-and-ink illustrations dance across the page and spill out onto a horizontal foldout of elephants and ballerinas spotlighted together--in the true story of "Circus Polka," choreographed in 1942 by George Balanchine, with music by Igor Stravinsky and performances by John Ringling North's elephants. Robert Andrew Parker brings his love of theater, dance, and costume to this captivating story. Leda Schubert's background note includes black-and-white photos of the actual performance.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A memorable piece of circus history takes center ring in Schubert's (Here Comes Darrell) fact-filled tale. The author explains how composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer George Balanchine and circus leader John Ringling North-all famous in their own right-came together to create a ballet for 50 elephants in 1942. Several spreads feature separate brief histories of the three men: readers learn of Stravinsky's misunderstood music and Balanchine's homesickness when he was sent away to ballet school at age nine. North, who envisioned the pachyderm performance, called upon Russian-born Balanchine, who then involved his friend and fellow countryman Stravinsky. A gatefold opens to reveal the momentous dance. Modoc lifts ballerina Zorina in his trunk in a standout painting that recalls Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin-Rouge posters; he and the other elephants "wore fluffy pink tutus and jeweled headbands." (The World's Greatest Elephant, reviewed below, offers a chilling backstory to elephant star Modoc's tale.) Parker's (Cold Feet) ethereal artwork evokes the lightness and movement of ballet, as watercolors bleed out of the pen-and-ink outlines. While the narrative casually uses a few terms (e.g., "bull men," "droshkies") without explanation, and the artists' backgrounds may seem like a bit of a detour, Schubert manages to put the show in a broader cultural context. Author notes contain black-and-white photos of the ballet along with additional fascinating facts (e.g., it took 7,000 yards of fabric to make the elephants' tutus). Ages 4-8. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
The arrival of the circus is always an exciting event, but in April 1942 there began a series of extraordinary performances, 425 to be exact, that included a most unusual ballet. With music by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by George Balanchine, fifty elephants in tutus were trained to dance a ballet with fifty ballerinas. Schubert offers background information on the famous characters responsible for the incredible show: Balanchine, Stravinsky, and the head of the circus, John Ringling North. Parker's interpretation of this fantasy brought to life is projected with impressionistic verve. His ink line drawings have an electric current in them; his watercolors refuse to remain inside their contours. He can create a purple silhouette of Russian church towers as well as more detailed visions of artists and dancers. The climactic fold-out of the dancing elephants and ballerinas adds to the special qualities of both text and illustrations. 2006, A Deborah Brodie Book/Roaring Brook Press, Ages 5 to 8.
—Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
Gr 1-4-This fascinating historical vignette traces the paths of three famous men-circus-owner John Ringling North, ballet-master George Balanchine, and composer Igor Stravinsky-and shows how their lives intersected to create a one-of-a-kind event. The Circus Polka, a ballet featuring 50 elephants and 50 dancers, all in pink tutus, took place in New York City in 1942. In a smooth storylike narrative, Schubert weaves biographical details about the participants with descriptions of the preparations, rehearsals, and dazzling performance. The book ends with an author's note and black-and-white photos, one of which shows a long line of costumed elephants with their feet resting on one another's backs. Presented on single pages and full spreads, and using variations of bright and muted colors, the watercolor-and-ink illustrations capture the movement and vitality of this creative undertaking. For the most part, the paintings focus tightly on the performers, providing close-up glimpses of Madoc, a large Indian elephant, and Vera Zorina, the featured dancer. Scenes that depict the full company in action include only two or three pachyderms, and, in one spread, the animals become a backdrop for the ballerinas. Children can best appreciate what the elephant corps de ballet looked like by viewing the photo, which shows most of the stage area. Clearly written and vividly illustrated, this book provides a unique introduction to three interesting individuals and a look at a curious moment in musical history.-Carol Schene, Taunton Public Schools, MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In Florida, 1942, a most unusual collaboration took place. George Balanchine, the great expatriate Russian choreographer, created a dance for John Ringling North's circus elephants to music by his good friend, the great expatriate Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Schubert's understated but informative text contrasts delightfully with the grand goings-on as elephants rehearse for weeks in lovely pink tutus. With Modoc, an Indian elephant performing a pas de deux with Vera Zorina, a popular ballet and Broadway star, the staging was a dazzling success. Parker's watercolor designs swirl about, capturing the procession of elephants, the skyline of St. Petersburg and the exuberance of four-legged creatures looking even more elegant than the ballerinas. An afterword and photographs provide additional information and confirm that the ballet, occasionally performed today with ballet students, actually took place. A charming tale to share with young fans of the circus and ballet. (bibliography, web sites, extensive author note) (Picture book. 4-7)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596430754
  • Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
  • Publication date: 4/4/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 34
  • Sales rank: 1,076,060
  • Age range: 4 - 8 Years
  • Lexile: 780L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 10.39 (w) x 8.33 (h) x 0.37 (d)

Meet the Author

LEDA SCHUBERT was the school library consultant for the Vermont Department of Education, and she has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College.

ROBERT ANDREW PARKER a costume and set designer, fine artist and printmaker, has work in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, and the Whitney. His many children's books include Cold Feet, winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and Action Jackson, a Robert F. Sibert Award Honor Book. He and his wife live in West Cornwall, Connecticut, where he is the drummer for the Bob Parker Quintet.

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