Before there was a mouse named Angelina, there was an elephant named Modoc. Actually, a whole troupe of elephants. And I use the term "troupe" advisedly. Troupe as in ballet troupe.
In fictional works (such as the wildly popular "Angelina Ballerina" series by Katharine Holabird) dancing animals are no more unusual than Kenneth Grahame's eccentric "Wind in the Willows" cast, or the brilliant rats in Robert C. O'Brien's "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH."
But in real life? Well, when was the last time you saw a dancing elephant?
For readers not fortunate enough to have witnessed The Circus Polka, a ballet featuring 50 dancers and 50 elephants, which debuted in New York City in 1942, Leda Schubert's nonfiction picture book, Ballet of the Elephants, (illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker) offers a snapshot of a rare moment in ballet history.
There was Modoc's solo – lifting of feet and endless turns by the largest Indian elephant in America. There was a duet with Modoc and the human ballerina, Zorina.
And then there was the ballet – 50 elephants holding each other by the tail and dancing through all three circus rings.
While the elephants – pink tutus and all – do steal the show in this story, Schubert's book is also about the lives of three men, whose artistic visions intersected to create a performance unlike any the world had witnessed.
These three men – John Ringling North, George Balanchine, and Igor Stravinsky – "all had big ideas," Schubert writes. And before they came together, each had already made a name for himself, dazzling audiences with ballets and music and the greatest show on earth.
Leave it to North, who grew up "with five wild uncles who owned a circus" to have the vision for bringing all three together.
And leave it to Schubert, a librarian and long-ago history major, to weave the disparate pieces leading up to New York, 1942, into a coherent, almost poetic text that moves gracefully from the circus's arrival in New York, to brief histories of each of the three men, and then back to that magical night – and the 424 performances that followed.
Enhancing the fluid feeling of the story are Parker's watercolor-and-ink illustrations, which capture everything from the vibrant hues of St. Petersburg (at the time known as Leningrad) to the majestic elephants to the ultra-limber ballerinas leaping through striking swathes of circus spotlight luminescence. Sixty-some years later, it's the next best thing to having been there.
"Everything in this story is true," says Schubert in an author's note. And for those readers still wishing for more after the curtain closes on the story, the three pages about the book contain interesting factoids about the circus's tour, more resources for further reading and, best of all, a full-page photo of the elephants in action (wearing all 7,000 yards of tutu material fabric.)
In an era when moviemaking technology has given us animals that regularly "perform" unimaginable feats, readers of all ages will enjoy this look at a pack of pachyderms who really did dance with ballerinas, and at the people who made it happen – without a single special effect.