Allegra Kent and Robin Preiss Glasser Bring “Nutcracker” to the Page in New Children’s Book
Robin Preiss Glasser clearly remembers seeing Allegra Kent for the first time. She was a young summer student at the School of American Ballet, sneaking glimpses of New York City Ballet’s company class through an open studio door when she saw the then-principal dancer stretching on the floor. “Everyone else was kind of just leaning against the barre, but Allegra was like a pretzel, holding her legs over her head and doing all kinds of wild things,” says Glasser, who danced as a soloist with Pennsylvania Ballet before becoming a well-known illustrator. Now many decades later, the two artists are collaborating on a new Nutcracker-themed picture book titled Grand Jeté and Me.
Published by HarperCollins, the children’s book, written by Kent, is slated to come out on October 19. Kent, who retired from NYCB in 1981, can add Grand Jeté and Me to her growing list of publications, including the 2012 picture book Ballerina Swan and her heartfelt 1997 autobiography Once a Dancer. Glasser, best known for the Fancy Nancy series, brings a skilled and whimsical hand to the book.
Grand Jeté and Me follows a grandmother, nicknamed “Grand Jeté” and based on Kent, who brings her young granddaughter to see NYCB’s Nutcracker, an experience culled from Kent’s own life. “My mother took my children, and I just followed the tradition of taking my granddaughters,” says Kent. “And of course they knew I had danced most of the roles.” The emotional arc of the story occurs when the granddaughter comes to realize that her grandmother was once a prima ballerina who danced the role of the Sugarplum Fairy. “I was just like her, my darling,” says the wonderfully elegant Grand Jeté, “and someday you might be, too.”
Kent and Glasser worked together for many years to bring this personal story to the page. And while Kent is still deeply immersed in the ballet world as a teacher and veritable human archive of George Balanchine’s legacy, for Glasser, this was something of a homecoming. “I had been away from ballet for 30 years, and every time I went to see a friend dance I would cry. It was just too emotionally hard for me,” she says. But when their mutual agent urged Glasser to take on the project, she couldn’t resist. “Ballet is in my blood, it’s so deeply inside of me. It was time to lift up this Pandora’s box and go back to my ballet roots,” says Glasser. Amicably talking over each other on a three-way phone call, Kent adds, “Lift up your Pandora’s box and put a few tendus in!”
Glasser’s years of ballet training are evident in the book’s illustrations, which depict the dancers exhibiting perfect technique. They’re also a beautiful testament to Balanchine’s choreography and Karinska’s beloved costumes, drawn here in exquisite detail.
The character of Grand Jeté, with her long neck and upswept gray hair, also brings Kent’s delicate grace to the page. Glassner has also drawn a handful of Easter eggs for the watchful bunhead: In one image, a stack of art books bears spines reading “Allegra” and “Balanchine”; in another we get a glimpse of a very Balanchine-looking figure standing backstage.
After a year without live performance due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kent and Glasser are thrilled at the timing of the book’s publication. “I’m hoping children will look at it, get a taste of the ballet, and get their parents to take them to see it,” says Glasser. “There’s so much magic in the Nutcracker,” adds Kent. “Dewdrop and the Sugarplum Fairy go right into a child’s imagination. And not just children, but everyone, ready to leap off the page with Grand Jeté.”