Spoiler alert: this post is not about an obscure form of biblioclasty–or something even more unimaginable.
Cotsen has its fair share of picture book introductions to the ballet, many of them in the Diana R. Tillson collection. Of course there’s a copy of Noel Streatfield’s The First Book of the Ballet (1956), complete with an inspirational story about a young girl who wants to dance, a glossary of steps, history of the ballet, and plot synopses of famous ballets (Streatfield also wrote the beloved 1936 Ballet Shoes).
For a much quirkier approach by a certifiable balletomane, there’s Edward Gorey’s The Lavender Leotard: or Going a Lot to the New York City Ballet (1973).For those who prefer to see supple animals instead of ballerinas demonstrate arabesques, entrechats and grands jetes (chacun a son gout), there’s Donald Elliott’s Frogs and Ballet (1979) or Janis Mitchell’s The Hamster Ballet Company (1986).
Then there is Patterson Blick Instant Picture Book number 5, written and illustrated by Dennis Knight. It may be the only introduction to the ballet in the collection that is also an activity book. It comes with two leaves of “rub down instant pictures,” which turn out to be forty-six Letraset transfers. For those of you fascinated by this form of image-transfer technology, check out the webpage for SPLAT, the Society for the Preservation of Letraset Action Transfers.
The sheets of transfers are divided into five sections (A-E) and each has been designed to complete a particular illustrations in the text. B and D require the same skills as filling in an outline drawing in a coloring book, once the correct figure is located. A, C, and E are much more complicated. The figures have to be arranged on the sets of different ballets without any synopses or photographs of actual productions to help visualize how they might be placed. Perhaps this was intended to engage young artists, who might design costumes or sets, more than young dancers.
Luckily, Cotsen has two impressions of this Instant Picture Book: a pristine copy of the 7th impression, with all the transfers unused, and an earlier one with no impression given, whose illustrations have been completed, quite credibly. The instructions, which appear on the rear wrapper, are illustrated with five cartoons, while those for the 7th impression use only the first, third, and fifth (but it has a cheery logo featuring a bee).
Notice the simpering White Cat (sans Puss in Boots) in the background of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.
There is one obvious goof in the scene from Adolphe Adam’s Giselle, where the reclining figure of Albrecht is rotated so that he is balancing en pointe. On second thought, it makes him look a bit like Gene Kelly, so maybe it was done on purpose to juice things up.
For the third ballet, I was expecting Stravinsky’s Petroushka but found instead a scene from Checkmate (1937), a ballet with music by Arthur Bliss with choreography by Ninon de Valois, founder of the Birmingham and Royal Ballet.
Considered a cornerstone of the British ballet repertory, I wonder if it was chosen at the suggestion of the publication’s technical advisor, the great English danseur noble Michael Somes, who created the role of the Black Knight (The ballet’s premise is that the chess pieces come to life and play out the emotions of love and jealousy during the course of the match).
Whoever completed the illustration in the Cotsen copy arranged the figures so that one Red Knight is poised to stab a Black Pawn, while his twin is about to be attacked by the Black Knight, with the Black Queen, the femme fatale of the piece, advancing from the rear.
Did an older child or adult who had seen a fair number of ballets (or had studied dance) go through the trouble of completing the pictures? Whoever the reader was, he or she seems to have taken the task fairly seriously, whether or not the scenes that were composed reflect actual choreography. It’s evidence of a different kind of engagement with the book…