Allegra Kent

Allegra KentAllegra Kent   Allegra Kent joined the New York City Ballet when she was fifteen years old. Born in Santa Monica, California, she moved to New York when she began studying at the School of American Ballet. Only a few short years after graduating and joining the company, Allegra was promoted to principal. In the era of George Balanchine, the famous choreographer created several roles for Allegra. After a long and impressive career Allegra retired in 1981 and turned to teaching. Today, she is busy teaching at Barnard College and working on her blossoming writing career. Her first children’s book, Ballerina Swan, was published by Holiday House in early 2012. Allegra graciously spoke to me about working on her picture book, her life as a ballerina, and her future writing plans.   Her previous publishing experience came in the form of two books for adults, and she revealed that delving into the world of children’s publishing went a little differently. When I asked if the process was different than she expected, she responded that after her manuscript was accepted the task of finding an illustrator was entirely new to her. She had seen Emily Arnold McCully’s—the illustrator of Ballerina Swan—amazing work, way before she began the hunt. Specifically, she was familiar with Emily’s Caldecott winning picture book Mirette and the High Wire. Funnily enough, when Allegra was in her editor’s office looking at a variety of art samples from illustrators, she was excited to discover the illustration she selected was by Emily. Another card fell into place when Allegra’s editor discovered Emily was in fact available. With so many details to coordinate, this process does not always run so smoothly. The deal was sealed quickly and Ballerina Swan was produced a full year ahead of schedule. Allegra expressed how thrilled she was to to collaborate with the illustrator of her dreams.   In Ballerina Swan, Sophie, a New York City swan, dreams of becoming a ballerina. She loves sneaking a look at the young ballerinas in school and desperately wants to join their class. Originally, Allegra says the story was too text heavy and dense. In changing the storyline a bit, Allegra kept Sophie’s aspirations to become a dancer because they paralleled her own young dreams. As a child Allegra didn’t know what she wanted to do; she had heard of ballet, but never seen one. In boarding school she took a folk dance class, and from there told her mother she wanted to leave boarding school to learn to dance. The first school at which she studied had no beginner classes, another similarity to Sophie—having natural ability but feeling slightly out of your depth in regards to technique.   The imagery of birds and ballet is nothing new. As Allegra put it, ballerinas always strive to be as beautiful and graceful as birds. The twist here is a swan that yearns to be a ballet star. Sophie’s entry into ballet class does not go well—the teacher, the strict Madam Myrtle—does think swans belong in such places. Rejection is something with which all dancers are faced, including Allegra. Hard work is critical, but each person has different strengths to draw upon. Sophie is an example of this; because certain moves and techniques seem to come easily to her while she struggles with others. Allegra drew on her observations of her own and other’s dancing strengths and weaknesses in creating Sophie. As she said, there will always be “certain things you have to work harder on.” Sophie seems to have mastered the split leap, helped by her instincts to fly high—good DNA. Allegra cheekily noted that she was glad the room had such a high ceiling.   When the young Miss Willow takes over the dance class one day, she is more tolerant of Sophie’s “bird-ness” and allows her in the class. I asked Allegra if she preferred teachers like Madam Myrtle or Miss Willow. She “would have preferred Miss Willow, but for the sake of the story, we need Madam Myrtle.” Allegra never had a teacher quite as strict as Madam Myrtle, but never had one exactly like Miss Willow either. She commented on how much she loved the way Emily stylized the two teachers. Giving Madam Myrtle her severe and formidable appearance but also illustrating how she strikes a balance between demanding and caring. Allegra’s own teaching style is very different, mostly due to the fact that her students are in college.   Ballerina Swan shows what hard work and perseverance can do when following your passion. When it comes to advice for others pursuing their dreams Allegra said to “work! And of course don’t give up too easily.” The mother of three adult children, she feels the rest of her advice would be of the usual grandmother variety. A caring grandmother, she dedicated her book to her grandchildren. At the end of our conversation, I asked Allegra about her ballet past—she listed Red Shoes as her favorite ballet-themed movie and said that her favorite ballet to dance is always the one she’s just done. As for future writing plans she would like to write another book for young readers, and if the reviews for Ballerina Swan are any indication, many will be clamoring for more Sophie.Contributor: Emily Griffin Updated 4/2/12 Back to Top

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