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.

 

Robots at the Ready

robots at the readyA robot backpack? Yes indeed! Now you and your robot pal can embark on a series of terrific adventures. But the best thing about this story time? The author, Jared Aldwin Crooks, came to read the book to us! In addition to penning a children’s book, Jared studied astrophysics, has worked at NASA, and is currently obtaining Masters degrees in International Policy and Mechanical/ Aerospace Engineering here at Princeton University. There’s a short interview with him at the end of this post!

jared aldwin crooks We read The Several Strange Adventures of Max and Ding, written by Jared Aldwin Crooks and illustrated by Scott T. Baldwin (Crooks with Books, 2014). Maximilian Finch (Max for short) lives in a sleepy town where not much happens. During school breaks his classmates go to all sorts of exciting places, but not Max. But one Sunday, Max builds a robot named Ding. That week, Max and Ding hit the road – riding paper planes through jungles, climbing mountains, visiting the circus, digging to Atlantis, fishing for treasure, building a bridge to the moon, and discovering new planets. Thanks to his pal Ding, Max now has plenty to talk about!

You’ll need:

  • 1 box for robot body (mine was 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 6” – a small tissue box works too)
  • 1 smaller box for robot head (mine was 2.5″ x 3.25″ x 4″)
  • 1 box cutter
  • 1 small craft stick
  • 2 strips of white poster board for backpack straps (approximately 1″ x 28″)
  • A 20″ piece of mesh tubing (string, ribbon, or yarn works too)
  • 2 rectangles of poster board for arms (approximately 1.5″ x 5.75″)
  • 2 rectangles of poster board for legs (approximately 1.5″ x 11″)
  • Robot decorating materials (we used metallic duct tape, prism tape, tin foil, beverage lids, washed Altoids tins, twistez wire, sparkle stems, paper cups (in silver and gold), small plastic cups, embossed foil seals, craft ties, dot stickers, rectangular stickers, foil star stickers, colored masking tape, balloon stick cups, grey construction paper, embossed foil paper, and mylar).
  • Scissors, tape, and glue stick for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

To make a robot backpack, cut four, 1.5″ slits in a box. Then, use a small craft stick to enlarge the slits a little (this will make it easier to slide the backpack straps through the slits later).

backpack box slitsSlide the white poster board straps through the slits like so:

backpack strapsNow, holding the box firmly to your back, curl the straps over your shoulders, adjust them, and staple them. Put pieces of masking tape over the staples (thus avoiding staple scratches or clothing snags). Later, when your robot is finished, you’ll want to tie a piece of mesh tubing (or string, ribbon, or yarn) around both straps to keep them from sliding off your shoulders.

strap stepsWhen the backpack straps are finished, you’ll need to hot glue the head, arms, and legs on your robot’s body. You can do that now, or wait until you’ve decorated your robot a little. I offered OCuSoft lid scrub boxes as an option for the robot’s head. As you can see, when covered with tin foil, they look like fantastic smiling robot faces!

ocusoft box headAnother great recyclable discovery? balloon stick cups make great robot antennae holders. I definitely use balloon sticks for projects (see here, here, and here) but I don’t use the cups as much. But a doubled-up sparkle stem fit perfectly in the narrow end of the cup.

robot antennaeFor decorating, we offered metallic duct tape, prism tape, tin foil, beverage lids, washed Altoids tins, twistez wire, sparkle stems, mesh tubing, paper cups (in silver and gold), small plastic cups, embossed foil seals, craft ties, dot stickers, rectangular stickers, foil star stickers, colored masking tape, balloon stick cups, grey construction paper, embossed foil paper, and mylar.

Here’s Jared, his robot, and our program area after our creative little endeavor concluded!

jared and robotHi Jared! Tell us a little about yourself!
Hey there! My name is Jared Aldwin Crooks. I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas before coming to Princeton to get my undergraduate degree in Astrophysics and my Masters degrees in International Policy and Mechanical/ Aerospace Engineering. I have always loved creating things, whether it is some kind of contraption, food, or just writing down all of the things that are in my head. My creative partner, Scott T. Baldwin, and I are always working on a new project or book!

My passion is making the world around me a better place and I believe this can be done through little improvements over time (kaizen). My wife and I started NouriBar, a social venture that makes all-natural fruit and nut bars and for every bar purchased we work with the local communities to feed a child in need a hot meal in school. I also love doing radio and voice work. During my time at NASA, I was one of the narrators for the ScienceCasts! I love to cook and watch great films (Kurosawa, Bergman, Hitchcock).

What were some of your favorite books when you were a kid?
I was constantly reading as a kid. One of my all-time favorite books growing up was a picture book called Corduroy. The artwork seemed to jump out at you on each page and I loved the storyline! Other books that I really loved include any and all of the books from The Little Golden Books series, the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper, and the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Why did you decide to write this book?
This book is loosely based on the daydreams that I had growing up. I had always wanted to share the things that had captured my imagination growing up; the stars, building things, wildlife, robotics etc. I also wanted write something to inspire kids to dream big and especially wanted to make sure that young kids of color could see another kid building and imagining things that are not typically represented in stories that are accessible to them. I linked up with my wonderful creative partner, Scott T. Baldwin right at the beginning and he shared the same vision that I had and he illustrated each page to show exactly what we had dreamed; so this is how the book came about!

What was an unexpected difficulty in writing this book?
One surprising difficulty I experienced while writing this book was trying to fit all of Max and Ding’s activities into 7 days! They have so many places to choose from and travel!

If Ding the robot appeared right now, where would you go?
Ding and I would most definitely travel to Cape Town, South Africa and have a swimming contest with a few great white sharks before hopping over to New Zealand and going to all of the Lord of the Rings filming locations!


Many thanks to Jared Aldwin Crooks for sharing his book and being our special guest!

Your First Book

giant dance party coverIf you read (and breathe) children’s books, chances are you’ve considered writing one yourself. But writing can be tough, and publishing can be diabolically elusive. In the hopes of shedding a little light on the process, I decided to interview an author about her experiences in both writing and publishing her first picture book.

Some of you will immediately recognize the name Betsy Bird. In addition to being a Youth Collections Specialist at the New York Public Library, she has served on various literary projects and panels (including the Newbery Award committee), written for Horn Book, Kirkus, the New York Times, and has a popular School Library Journal blog, A Fuse #8 Production. This fall, in collaboration with Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta, she released an adult non-fiction book titled Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick, 2014).

Betsy’s also published a picture book, Giant Dance Party, which is illustrated by Brandon Dorman (Greenwillow Books, 2013). The book is about a little girl named Lexy who decides (after a few bad experiences with stage fright) to quit the stage and become a dance instructor instead. Her only pupils, however, are five furry (but highly enthusiastic) blue giants. We had a fabulous time reading this book at our story time (you can see the project here). But what was it like to write and publish it?

magic tree bookstore

Betsy (center) stops by Magic Tree Bookstore on her book tour

So, one morning, did you wake up and decide you were going to write a children’s book?

Not exactly. It was more a gentle thought in the back of my brain that sat there percolating for a while. Honestly, the only reason Giant Dance Party even happened was that illustrator Brandon Dorman wrote me an email one day that essentially said, “Let’s do a book together! I’ll illustrate it, you write it, and I only have one idea: Giant leaping.” I mean, how do you turn that kind of thing down? I fully credit him with getting me off of my tuchis and writing.

How did you proceed from “Giant leaping?”

Well, I pretty much just came up with three different ideas, all of which involved giants launching themselves in the air in some way. After I hammered them out and Brandon approved them we approached his editor. We presented three ideas and the publisher purchased two. Easy peasy!

After the idea was purchased, did you write the story?

No, before! It was complete and they bought it that way. Then came the copious edits.  We actually went through two different editors with two very different styles in the course of the book. Lots of changes were made but honestly I think it was for the best in the end. The book’s much stronger now than it was when we first turned it in.

Giant-Dance-Party-InsideHow long did it take to write the story? Did you involved anyone else, or was it just you, the keyboard, and your favorite caffeinated beverage?

Honestly this was actually a kind of rare occurrence. You see, I worked with Brandon on the stories before we submitted them and he gave me feedback. Under normal circumstances authors and illustrators are given wide berth of one another and are not allowed to communicate all that much when collaborating. But since we already had a friendship and it was Brandon’s idea in the first place (plus the fact that he’s a New York Times Bestseller rockstar) we decided to bounce ideas off of one another while we developed the book. It was a LOT of fun. And I think it just took a couple months to hammer everything out in the end.

Did you give Brandon any feedback on the illustrations?

I did but not until much later in the process. The illustrations went through a LOT of changes. In the end there wasn’t much to really suggest. The man’s a pro. But I did suggest a darker color to some hand painted letters in one scene and more diversity in the characters in another scene. Aside from that, no changes necessary!

You mentioned copious edits. Can you tell us more about what it was like to work with editors?

Sure! My first editor was pretty easy going. I came into his office and we did a lot of line edits, sitting down and going over every single sentence. Then he left the company and I found myself with another editor entirely! She had a different vision for the book, having inherited it rather than purchasing it herself. Honestly, we’re very lucky she liked it enough to proceed with it. It was because of her vision that the giants changed from gross, disgusting, big warty guys into furry blue piles of adorableness. She was also very rigorous with the text and the ending and a lot of changes were made to the storyline. In the end, I think it ended up a much stronger book and I was happy to take most (though admittedly not all) of her suggestions.

giants bowHow long did it take from idea percolating to the final, finished book?

You mean for it to reach bookstore and library shelves? I believe we started the process in 2009 and it came out in 2013. That’s partly because of the switch in editors and partly because books take FOREVER to be published. Ask any author and they will tell you that this is true. It may even explain the rise in self-publishing, honestly.

What was it like to hold your finished book in your hands? Or watch children read it?

The finished book was lovely and surreal all at once. Not quite as surreal as watching perfect strangers pick it up and read it on their own, but surreal just the same. I really got a kick out of hearing folks discuss it without knowing I was nearby. Eventually, I’m going to have to experience that universal moment so many authors have had to face where you see your book in a secondhand store or Goodwill, but until then I’m loving it.

What was one thing that surprised you about writing a children’s picture book?

I was definitely surprised by how long the whole publication process takes. I expected a year or two, but more than that? Crazytalk! So that was new to me. There’s also the fact that in many ways the author is in the dark when it comes to knowing how a book is doing.  That might be a good thing, though. Knowing too much leads to insanity.

Do you have any advice for people who might be developing a story of their own?

The best thing you can do is read as many books as you can that are similar to your own.  Know what’s out there. The last thing you want to be is derivative and the nice thing about consuming vast quantities of children’s literature is that after a while you can parse the good from the bad. So visit your local children’s library and check out, check out, check out!

If you’d like to learn more about Betsy, her books, and her literary adventures, visit her website, Betsy Bird Books. And if you know juuuust where to look in her website’s “Media” section, you can see footage of her dancing in fuzzy blue legwarmers. I really do need a pair.


Book images used with permission of the author, and author photo used with permission of Magic Tree Bookstore.