Sunday, April 12, 2015

Module 11--Ballet For Martha: Making Appalachian Spring: A Review

by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca

Greenberg, J. and Jordan, S. (2010).  Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Roaring Book Press, New York. 

I figure making a book about the creation of an iconic American ballet is a tough sell.  You've got to be true to history and you have two subjects that don't lend themselves naturally to the written word: the art of dance and the art of music.  Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, does this efficiently, with beautiful illustrations and great text that together flow as easily and excellently as Aaron Copland's score and Martha Graham's choreography. 

Martha Graham:
We get a quick introduction to our three figures: Martha Graham, the choreographer (or creator of dance), Aaron Copland, the composer, and a generally unsung figure in the creation of the ballet Appalachian Spring, Isamu Noguchi, the artist (in this case, set designer). 

Each figure goes through a creative process and progress.  For Graham, it is coming up with both a scenario and with the dance movements.  She has to create a story that can be told in dance, and that can be both creative and one that can be performed by the dancers.  It isn't easy, as she keeps working and reworking her choreography.  Graham also has the added burden of finding her style not embraced by the times.

Aaron Copland
For Copland, it is in finding the right music to which to tell the story he's been given: a pioneer wedding.  He comes across a Shaker hymn, which inspires him.  He writes out the music, waits for it to be approved, and even doesn't mind when the score is rearranged to fit the dance.  For Noguchi, it is going beyond his usual sculptures and creating a minimalist set that can work with the dancers and their movements.

Finally, the big day comes: October 30, 1944, where Appalachian Spring (a title Graham found in a poem and which she liked despite having nothing to do with the ballet) premieres in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress.  Ballet for Martha then describes through words and illustrations the ballet itself and the great success Appalachian Spring had.  The book ends with the idea of a revival of Appalachian Spring, with new dancers coming to recreate this uniquely American story.  We know that it is a new interpretation, for we see a multicultural dance company performing the dance.  We also get a "Curtain Call" section, giving brief biographies of Graham, Copland, and Noguchi and the footnotes that credit the information.

Isamu Noguchi:
Ballet for Martha as I said has a very difficult task.  How exactly does one recreate on a page the freedom of movement or the sound of music?  Appalachian Spring is one of the seminal works of American culture: Copland's score, in particular his interpretation of the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts is among the greatest and most recognizable works in American music.  The choreography to Appalachian Spring was a landmark in American dance.  Therefore, how to show this physical work in a book?

A great deal of success to Ballet for Martha is due to Floca's illustrations.  They are simple but elegant.  In particular, Floca has a vitality when illustrating the leaping and movements of various dances.  We don't just see the illustrations to show how Appalachian Spring was, but also a previous Graham ballet, 1929's Heretic.  We don't get a description of what Heretic is about, but the fact that Floca's illustrations show Graham all in white facing a group of women towering over her all in black is a strong explanation of what Heretic entails.  We see this with Floca's illustration for Appalachian Spring as we see the exuberance and the quiet of the dancing.

Floca throughout Ballet for Martha shows us how the dancers told the story through movement.  The text by Greenberg and Jordan take great care to explain what is going on in the story.  Ballet can be a bit opaque to many people, especially children not involved in ballet.  As such, to see Greenberg and Jordan's text alongside with Floca's illustrations we get as much impact as possible for the page.

"The bridegroom leaps and bounds like an acrobat, strutting, swaggering, showing off for his bride." 

The text above is complimented with illustrations of the various athletic movements of the male lead, concluding with a full-page illustration of the Bridegroom posing in a powerful position, muscular arms thrust out, almost as if he were more prizefighter than ballet dancer.  They do the same when they describe the 'fiery' movements of the Preacher, almost as an avenging angel warning sinners of the wrath of an angry God.

Ballet for Martha also gives us not just the story of the creation of Appalachian Spring, but about the importance of collaboration.  Each figure (Graham, Copland, and Noguchi) worked together to create Appalachian Spring.  We don't read that any of them said it had to be done their way.  In fact, we read that Graham had to rewrite her scenario again and again, and that Copland didn't object when his music was rearranged.  Whether the last part was true is not in the notes, but we trust that if there was, it would have been mentioned.  As it stands, there is no sense that Appalachian Spring was anything other than three great artists collaborating and working in tandem to create a masterpiece.  

Above all else, Appalachian Spring is an AMERICAN creation: a piece that is about an American subject, drawing from American music, infused with the American spirit of freedom.  This is why it was extremely clever to end Ballet for Martha with a whole new group of dancers performing Appalachian Spring, one that featured minorities in the prominent roles.   It shows that dance companies around the world are able to perform Appalachian Spring as a work that celebrates America, or at least acknowledges that the United States has its own unique culture. 


In her review for Ballet for Martha, Jennifer McDonald observed that after reading it, "the book's earnestness may appeal to young dancers (and will undoubtedly send them to YouTube to see "Appalachian Spring" for themselves." I can testify that it wasn't just 'young dancers' who were intrigued to see what Appalachian Spring was all about.   I think readers will want to know more about Appalachian Spring, and fortunately, we have video of the ballet with Graham recreating her original performance. 


Obviously, a performance of a selection from Appalachian Spring would be an excellent program to have for Ballet for Martha.  We could also have either a band perform the score's most famous work, Copland's version of Simple Gifts, or have a choir sing this and other Shaker hymns.    


McDonald, J. (2011, January 14). Rhythms of a New Land. The New York Times Book Reviews.  Retrieved from

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