A ballet for elephants? With steps by the world’s most respected choreographer and music by the 20th century’s greatest modern master? Sounds fantastic, but that’s exactly what happened in 1942 when George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky collaborated on a ‘dance’ project for the 50 elephants of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.

Balanchine and an elephant

There’s a little confusion of who came up with the idea, but Broadway and Hollywood costume designer Miles White is the leading candidate. White, whose work included Oscar nominations for The Greatest Show on Earthand There’s No Business Like Show Businessas well as costumes for the premiere productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!and Carousel, took the idea to circus supremo John Ringling North and between them they soon had Balanchine on board.

The Russian émigré choreographer, who had been in the United States since 1933, had a reputation for thinking outside the box and had already worked on Broadway, most famously on Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toesin 1936. With its famous Slaughter on Tenth Avenueballet, it marked the first time a dance-maker had received billing as a choreographer for a...