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 Streatfeild’s The First Book of the Ballet (1956), complete with an inspirational story about a young girl who wants to be a ballerina, a glossary of steps, history of the ballet, and plot synopses of famous ballets (Streatfeild was also the author of the beloved 1936 Ballet Shoes).
For a 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). The page on the right includes a self-portrait of the author-illustrator in raccoon coat and tennis shoes. It was impossible to miss him on the nights he came to City Ballet.For those who prefer to see supple animals instead of trained classical dancers demonstrate an arabesque, entrechat or a pas de deux, there’s always author-illustrator Janis Mitchell’s The Hamster Ballet Company (1986) or Donald Elliott’s Frogs and Ballet (1979) illustrated by Clinton Arrowood.
Then there is Dennis Knight’s Ballet, Patterson Blick Instant Picture Book number 5. 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,” or forty-six Letraset transfers. For those of you with enquiring minds hungry for more information about this form of image-transfer technology, check out the webpage for SPLAT, the Society for the Preservation of Letraset Action Transfers.
In the Patterson Blick Instant Picture Book on the ballet, the sheets of Letraset transfers are divided into five sections, A-E, and each has been designed to complete a particular illustration in the text. B and D require about as much skill as filling in an outline drawing in a coloring book, while A, C, and E ask rather more of the reader. Each set of figures has to be arranged on the set of the correct ballet without any synopsis or photographs of an actual production to help visualize the scene. Perhaps this exercise was intended to engage young artists, who might yearn to design costumes or sets, rather than young dancers.
Luckily, Cotsen has two editions of Instant Picture Book number 5 and the 7th impression has all the transfers untouched on the inserted plates.
The illustrated directions for transferring the figures are printed on the rear wrapper. The earlier set of directions was illustrated with five pictures, but by the time the 7th impression was printed, the second and fourth illustrations were dropped and a cheery logo featuring a bee added in the upper left hand corner. A second good reason for keeping both copies in the collection!
Whoever filled in the scenes from the featured ballets in Cotsen’s “used” copy of Instant Picture Book Number 5 seems to have known something about classical dance. Notice the simpering White Cat (sans Puss in Boots) has been placed near the wings in the background of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. It could be the finale, where all the characters return for one last turn on the stage.
In the scene from Adolphe Adam’s Giselle, the reclining figure of Albrecht has been rotated so that he is balancing en pointe. Maybe it was an honest mistake, but I’m not so sure. It does make the romantic hero look a bit like Gene Kelly executing a jazzy move, so maybe it was done on purpose to juice things up.
And for the third ballet? I was expecting Stravinsky’s Petroushka. Instead it is Arthur Bliss’s Checkmate (1937), which was choreographed by Ninon de Valois, founder of the Birmingham and Royal Ballet, a work now considered a cornerstone of the modern British ballet repertory.
The ballet’s premise is that chess pieces come to life and act out human emotions (chiefly lust and blood lust) on stage. Whoever completed the scene arranged the figures so that one of the Red Knights is poised to stab a black pawn, while the Black Knight menaces his twin. The Black Queen, the femme fatale of the piece, looms ominously in the rear.
I wonder if Checkmate 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 in the original production.
Who transferred all the Letraset figures in Cotsen 16093? An older child studying ballet or an adult who was familiar with the repertory? Whoever it was, he or she seems to have taken the task fairly seriously, whether or not the scenes were composed from memories of choreography from actual productions. It’s evidence of a different kind of engagement with the book…