From Page to Stage

Jillian Snow queenThis month, the Princeton Youth Ballet will be performing its version of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, The Snow Queen for the fourth year. Risa Kaplowitz, who is the Artistic Director of, and choreographer for, the Princeton Youth Ballet, took some time to chat with me about the challenges and joys of bringing this tale to life through dance.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, The Snow Queen is about a boy named Kai (or Kay) who is first bewitched by magic mirror shards and then abducted by the Snow Queen. Kai’s best friend, Gerda, sets out to rescue him. After escaping a sorceress, receiving advice from a crow (or raven), visiting a palace, being detained by robbers, and gaining a reindeer, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s realm. Despite many challenges, Gerda finds Kai, and her warm tears melt the mirror shard embedded in his heart. Dancing in joy, Kai is also freed of the mirror shard in his eye. The two friends (with assistance from a reindeer, a Lapland woman, and a Finland woman) escape the Snow Queen’s palace and return to their homes.

Risa Kaplowitz has also adapted versions of The Secret Garden and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Before co-founding the Princeton Youth Ballet, she was a principal with Dayton Ballet and has also danced with the Houston Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Ballet Manhattan, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

What first captivated you about The Snow Queen?

I had the book when I was really young. It was one of those holographic books with a 3-D cover. The story was so captivating. Princeton Youth Ballet had done the Nutcracker, but with 48 Nutcrackers in New Jersey, I said “Enough!” My daughter had my book and said, “What about The Snow Queen?” I picked the book back up and I just saw so many possibilities.

SQ hugI Googled “Snow Queen Ballet” and could find only one ballet version, which had been performed in Europe, and I don’t think it was even a professional company. I also discovered that Disney had been working on a Snow Queen movie for a decade and that they were close to finally making the film. I felt that if Disney was going to make this movie, we had to do the ballet now. So, we preceded Frozen by two years.

In ballet, there are no words, there’s no verbal dialogue, there’s no narrator…it’s the dancers, and music, and visuals. How difficult was it for you to translate the story, and what techniques did you use?

Whenever I adapt a ballet from a book, I read every version, and I watch every movie and musical if there happens to be one. For The Secret Garden, of course, there are musicals, there are movies; there are different versions of the book. I usually start with the abridged version because, essentially, that’s the meat of it. A ballet is like making a movie out of a book – you’re not going to be able to put in every single thing. You have to brush broadly and then fill in with the movement that brings out the characters and narrative in what will hopefully be a more visceral way than even reading a book or watching a movie.

Act2-111Next I build the score. I listen to hundreds of hours of music. For the Snow Queen, I wanted music that evoked a Norwegian feel. I found it in Edvard Grieg. I also use Nikolai Rimsky-Korsadov for the ice castle scenes. I have the sort of brain that when I hear music, a narrative comes to me, so I follow the music’s lead and a narrative arc unfolds along with the characterizations.

I’m fascinated by the process of defining a character with choreography. For example, in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, the Snow Queen is evil. How do you translate that in dance? 

For me, it’s very helpful to have the dancer in my mind. In the case of the Snow Queen, the dancer I thought of when making the ballet was Jillian Davis, a former student who is over six feet tall – on pointe, she is probably six foot six. She is gorgeous with long limbs, and even though she was not always the Snow Queen because of other engagements, I used her as my guide. Although she is now a professional with Complexions Contemporary Dance Company in New York City, she is performing the role for us this year [Editor: Jillian is dancing the role in the first photo of this post].

At times, I made the Snow Queen’s movements very sharp. For example, in an arabesque, when your arms are normally out and very graceful [Risa elevates one arm in front of her and one arm behind her] Instead, I have her do something like this [Risa sharply bends the elbow of her back arm, resembling an archer pulling a bow]. This [indicating the sharp position of her arms] is much stronger and indicative of a spear or an evil instrument. However, I also evoke some quiet movements becomes sometimes the quiet ones are scarier. In the steps and Jillian’s interpretation, she is just pure coldness, yet she is gorgeous.

SQ and KaiWhat is it like to choreograph for the very young children?

Probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received was when somebody said, “What’s really amazing about your work is that you always make the dancers look good.” And I thought, “Well, doesn’t every choreographer?” And apparently, that’s not the case! [laughs] The tiniest ones, honestly, we spend these nine rehearsal weeks making their runs as beautiful as we possibly can. Holding their backs, holding their stomachs. They are not going to do anything much more than that!  Even when they are still, we teach them to be ballerinas – to have that presence, to have their chest up, their head inclined, and correct body lines. So, for them, it’s more of a matter of my giving them interesting pathways rather than interesting movement.

SnowbeesAs the Artistic Director, you also help develop the costumes for the production. It seems so natural for the snow portions to go with white and filmy…

But we didn’t. We went with blue! Because when you get that cold, ice isn’t white, it’s blue. You become absolutely blue with cold. So the interior of our ice castle scenes are blue and the ice maidens are in blue long tutus with a little silver shimmer on top. The Snow Queen is in white to differentiate herself.

Do you get a chance to watch the audience reacting to your ballet?

After a performance, we always have a meet and greet and I’ve seen kids from the audience who were speechless – really in awe of what they just saw. There are always some characters that they just love to meet, like the robber girl because she is so full of spirit.

Robber girl They are always a bit afraid of approaching the Snow Queen. Even though she’s in this beautiful dress, they sometimes want her to stay away! I like to ask them, “What was your favorite part?” and almost invariably they will say either the robber scene, which is really boisterous and fun. Or they say “The end.” At the end of the ballet, there’s an apotheosis where the ice maidens are taken to heaven by the angels and Gerda and Kai revisit the people who either helped or hindered Gerda in her quest to find Kai.

That’s not in the story, is it? You added that part?

Yes.

That’s beautiful!

Just thinking about the ending gives me chills. You know, last year, when Frozen came out, I told the Princeton Youth Ballet’s board President, “My biggest fear now is that people will be expecting to see Elsa, and they are not going to see Elsa!” [laughs]. It’s definitely not Frozen, but they will see Han Christian Andersen’s amazing story unfold in a beautiful way.

Ice Castle with Kai


Photos by Melissa Acherman, used with permission of the Princeton Youth Ballet.

 

Pas de Deux

pas de deuxTwirl and whirl with this beautiful ballerina marionette! Not so into pink tutus? No problem. We also have a pirouetting prince!

two dance togetherWe read Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince, written by Grace Maccarone, illustrated by Christine Davenier (Feiwel & Friends, 2011). Miss Lina’s ballerinas are delighted to learn that a boy will be joining their ballet class. A boy! Each girl imagines that she will be the one to dance a pas de deux with him at the end-of-year show. But the boy arrives and he’s not having it. With a leap and a bounce, he’s out the classroom door and dashing towards the zoo with the girls in pursuit. It becomes abundantly clear that the boy can dance, but not quite the way anyone expected. Eventually, the dancers learn to work together and all ten of them (Christina, Edwina, Sabrina, Justina, Katrina, Bettina, Marina, Regina, Nina and Tony Farina) perform brilliantly together at the end-of-year-show.

We’ll mainly use the ballerina for the instructional images below, but I’ll jump in every once in a while with something “prince specific.” And just in case you’re wondering, we did have some boys who choose to make pink ballerinas, and some girls who decided to make princes!

You’ll need:

  • 1 large rectangular box (mine was 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 9”) a large tissue box works too
  • A box cutter
  • 2 small craft sticks (mine were 2.5″ long)
  • 2 pieces of curling ribbon (approximately 36″ each)
  • A selection of colored masking tape
  • Pink construction paper (or blue for the prince)
  • 1 small square box (mine was 4” x 4” x 4”) a small tissue box works too
  • Brown, yellow, red, or black construction paper for hair
  • 2 white poster board rectangles for arms (approximately 1.75″ x 7.5″)
  • 2 toilet paper tubes
  • Construction paper for ballet shoes (pink for ballerina, black for prince)
  • 2 white poster board rectangles for legs (approximately 1.5″ x 11.5″)
  • Plastic cellophane lace (pink for ballerina, blue for prince) Tissue paper works too!
  • A small gold or silver embossed foil seal (optional)
  • An 8.5″ piece of PVC pipe
  • 1/2 of a pipe cleaner
  • Scissors, tape, and stapler for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

First, you’ll need to attach the string to your puppet. These puppets are going to do some bouncing and twirling, so I made sure to really anchor the string inside the box. To make the anchor, knot one end of a 36″ piece of curling ribbon around a small craft stick. Then reinforce the knot with masking tape.

anchor stickThen use a box cutter to cut a small slit on each side of the large box (aim for the the top, middle part of the box).

slit on boxUse scissors (or the craft stick) to enlarge the slits a little. From inside the box, push the curling ribbon outwards through the slit. Pull the ribbon until the anchor is flush against the inside of the box. Now thread the ribbon through the slit on the other side. But this time, you’ll start outside the box and push the ribbon in. Knot the unattached end of the ribbon around a small craft stick and reinforce the knot with tape. You now have a loop of curling ribbon that is anchored inside the box by two reinforced craft sticks.

finished stringNow for the ballerina’s leotard (and the prince’s jacket). For the ballerina, wrap a piece of  pink construction paper around the large box and tape it in the back. If you’d like, you can cut a little scoop in the top of the pink paper to create a neckline.

leotardFor the prince’s jacket, wrap a blue piece of construction paper around the box and tape it in the front. If you’d like, fold the tops back to form the “lapels” of the prince’s jacket. If you have extra construction paper hanging down the back of the box, consider cutting them into a jaunty pair of coat tails!

coatThe head is next! Fringe a piece of construction paper (we offered brown, yellow, black, and red) and hot glue (or tape) it around the top of a small square box. If you’d like to make a ballerina ponytail, gather the fringes together towards the back of the head

ponytail step 1Staple the fringes together, trim off any excess, then cover the staples with a masking tape “barrette.”

more ponytail stepsDraw a face on the front of the box (and ears on the sides) and attach the head to the body with hot glue.

faceNow for the arms. Round the rectangles of poster board at both ends. If you’d like, you can use scissors to shape a little thumb as well.

arm stepsFor the prince’s arms, wrap most of the arm with blue plastic cellophane lace (or blue construction paper) to create jacket sleeves, and then hot glue (or tape) to the box.

prince armFor the ballerina, simply hot glue (or tape) the unadorned arms to the sides of the box. Curl or fold them into whatever position you like.

To make the legs, wrap 2 toilet paper tubes with construction paper (pink for ballerina, black for prince). These will become your puppet’s dancing shoes. If you’re making a ballerina, draw some toe shoe ribbon on the white poster board legs strips (I started drawing mine about 0.5″ from the bottom of the strip).

lacingHot glue (or staple, or tape) the poster board legs to the inside of the toilet paper tubes. I had about 9″ of poster board leg extending above the top of the tube shoe.

finished legIf you’re making a prince, skip the ribbon and hot glue (or staple, or tape) the poster board legs to the inside of the tubes.

To attach your dancer’s legs, tab the top of the poster board strip and hot glue to them bottom of the box. You can see my leg placement in the image below (you can see the ballerina’s ponytail at the very bottom of the image). Make sure that one leg is attached at an angle. This is the leg that raise and lower later on a puppet string.

legs on boxNow for some finishing touches! If you’re making a ballerina, wrap and tape a long piece of pink cellophane lace around the bottom of the box to make a tutu (I had a spare roll of it left over from this princess dress program). My piece of cellophane lace was approximately 8″ x 39.5″. You can also make a tutu with tissue paper. We tested a 20″ x 26″ piece of tissue paper. We folded it in half (until it was 10″ high) and then wrapped it around the box. It looked great!

Stick a small foil seal to the front of the ballerina’s leotard for decoration (or decorate the leotard with markers). For the prince, use colored masking tape to make a belt around the jacket, and stick a small foil seal on the front as a belt buckle. If you have any extra blue cellophane lace (or even a Kleenex), make an ascot!

finished puppetsI have to share this fantastic prince puppet. This is a “Captain America dancer.” Love the shield, but I especially love the buttons down the front of the jacket! Why didn’t I think of buttons? They look awesome!

captain princeTo attach the puppet to its stick, hold the curling ribbon loop up to the bottom of a piece of PVC pipe and secure it with masking tape.

If you’d like your puppet to raise and lower a leg, follow these steps. First, twist 1/2 of a pipe cleaner into a loop, then knot a 36″ piece of curling ribbon onto it. Slide the pipe cleaner loop onto the PVC stick and tape the unattached end of the ribbon to the heel of your dancer’s shoe. Remember to attach the ribbon on the angled leg! When you’re ready to operate your puppet, slide the loop off the stick and move the leg up and down.

finished ballerinaAt the end of story time, I played some music from the Nutcracker, and kids danced a pas de deux with their puppets. There was plenty of creative and enthusiastic twirling, whirling,  and leaping going on, lemme tell you!

dancing

Monster Dance Party

monster feetDancing isn’t just for the petite-footed! Throw a MONSTER dance recital with giant feet and a rosy reward!

We read Giant Dance Party, written by Betsy Bird, illustrated by Brandon Dorman (Greenwillow Books, 2013). After freezing up at a number of recitals, dance-loving Lexy declares that she’s quitting dancing and is going to TEACH dancing instead. Her only customers, however, are five furry blue giants. With some coaching, coaxing, and channeling of their inner talents, Lexy whips the giants into shape. But when the big recital arrives, the giants are frozen with stage fright. It’s up to Lexy to overcome her own fears and show the giants how it’s done.

You’ll need:

  • 2 boxes (mine were 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 9” but you can also use two large tissue boxes)
  • 6 rectangles of tagboard (mine were 2.75″ x 5.5″)
  • 6 pieces of self-adhesive foam (mine were 1.75″ x 2.25″)
  • Strips of colored construction paper (approximately 2.5″ x 12″)
  • A selection of colored tissue paper squares (mine were 4″)
  • 2 white paper lunch bags
  • A selection of colored masking tape
  • Bubble wrap or sheets of tissue paper to stuff in giant feet
  • 1 strip of red crepe paper streamer (approximately 13″)
  • 1 green pipe cleaner
  • A few inches of gold curling ribbon (optional)
  • Dance music
  • Markers for decorating
  • White glue, scissors for construction
  • Hot glue

Feet first! Cut a rounded opening in the lids of both boxes. Make sure the back of your heel touches the back of the box.

cut footNow for toes! Round the short edge of each tagboard rectangle. Then, shape the self-adhesive foam like toenails and stick them on each toe. You can use markers to draw some hair on the toes as well.

toesNext, hot glue the toes to the underside of the box. One kid went with a “toe-on-top-of-the-box” option and I quite liked the results.

toes on topTime to decorate! We offered strips of fringed construction paper (best secured with tape) and tissue paper squares (best secured with white glue). For maximum results with the tissue paper, crumble it up, dab some glue on the box, and then press the crumble onto the glue.

decorating the feetI also unearthed some lizard-patterned paper from the art supply closet. Behold the creative coordination skills demonstrated below!

coordinated skirtWhen the giant feet are finished, set them aside to dry a little and turn your attention to your giant socks. Cut the bottoms off the two white paper lunch bags, then decorate the bags with markers. Socks done!

To get dressed, start by slipping your shoe through the paper bag sock and pushing the sock up your calf. Then slide your shoe into the giant foot and stuff bubble wrap (or sheets of tissue paper) around your shoe to make the giant foot more snug. Tuck the sock into the giant foot and wrap some colored masking tape around the sock to secure it. You’re ready to dance!

sample feetRoses after a performance are traditional, so I prepped a bunch of paper roses to give to the dancers. This rose-making technique was developed by Victoria Hoss, one of my student assistants. Grab the crepe paper streamer on one end, then curl the outside edge inward. This forms the inner “core” of the rose.

rose step 1Keeping the bottom of the rose pinched, repeatedly wrap the paper around the inner core.

rose step 2When the paper is all wrapped, release the pinched bottom of the rose slightly and insert a green pipe cleaner in the center.

rose step 3Pinch the base around the pipe cleaner, and wrap tightly with green masking tape.

rose step 4I had some gold curling ribbon in the art cabinet, so I added a little flair to the finished rose (because a curly sparkly gold bow is ALWAYS a good thing in my book).

finished roseOnto the recital! We danced to Polly Wolly Doodle (from the Dan Zanes album Rocket Ship Beach). As the kids danced, I handed out roses. But apparently, these feet were also made for walking…

off to explore