I don’t think anyone else was stretching like her yet. I think she must have started what has become so much a part of the discipline. Now all the dancers can do what she did with her body. And she combined the extreme positions her body could make with a soft lyrical and otherworldly unique style of dancing that made her enigmatic yet compelling.
But I never met her until we were working on this book. We were connected through our mutual agent, Faith Hamlin. My mother knew Faith and was Edward Villella’s manager, so there was always talk of Allegra. I knew her interesting life story as I had read her autobiography, but I never thought I’d do a children’s book with her.
‣ How was it like working on a book with someone you admired so much?!
This book is about a little girl going to New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker with her beloved grandmother (who she calls “Grand Jeté”), so I could focus on the passion and power ballet had over me when I was young – before it became my job.
Working on a book about ballet from that perspective, and with a dancer I had idolized as a child, was a complete thrill. And she’s so funny!
Together, Allegra and I are Mutt and Jeff, as I am big and loud, and she is as delicate as a fairy. But she is as sharp as a steel trap. I love to ask her questions like, “Tell me what Stravinsky was like,” and, “What was it like to travel to Communist Russia in the ’60s?” (Her answer was something crazy about fish.)
She was very interested in all the details I was bringing to the book. Our only disagreement was about the Grandmother character’s swing coat that I designed. She wanted to make sure that wasn’t real fur on collar and cuff. I had to repeatedly assure her I was drawing fake fur!
‣ In our previous conversation, you mentioned how important it is for you to tell “a woman’s story”. Can you explain what that means and how this influenced your approach in illustrating Grand Jeté and Me?
I find I do character-driven stories best as I like to draw people and their emotions. And with my illustrations, as in ballet, I am able to tell stories in movement, not words.
[Fancy] Nancy is a drama queen like me, and multi-dimensional, so there were endless stories to tell from her perspective. She’s like Lucy in I Love Lucy – she tries too hard and messes up. She has big dreams and passions. She needs to be an expert in everything — from French and the universe, to things like apple-picking.
Her curiosity and passion to know things is very empowering for all kids, as is her ability to pick herself up again after she falls or fails.