Thursday, March 4, 2010


Martha Graham (choreographer), Aaron Copland (composer), Isamu Noguchi (set design) Appalachian Spring / premiered October 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium / the version I saw was the 1958 film version, shot by Peter Glushanok, produced by Nathan Kroll

I have seen the film version of Martha Graham's and Aaron Copland's great collaboration several times, and in 2002 I watched it again, this time taking notes on the associations and feelings the music and dance brought to mind. The reader should understand my comments not as a literal description of the dance's events, but as my immediate interpretations of what I thought I saw. Another viewing might produce yet other such emotions.

In a sense, the work, which so brilliantly expresses the heartland and seemingly captures the sense of Appalachia, was itself a kind of accident. Commissioned by Graham and the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation to write a work for dance for Graham's company, Copland drew on Shaker songs and the kind of American idiom that he had already expressed so brilliantly in his ballet "Rodeo" of 1942.
Yet Copland had no idea what to title his piece, and even upon its delivery to Graham it was still titled, according the composer, "Ballet for Martha." It was only as the piece was readied to be performed that Graham titled it, after a few lines in The Bridge by Hart Crane, the "spring" Crane mentions referring to water instead of a season. Yet, Copland reportedly laughed, everyone applauds me for so aptly expressing the sensibility of Spring in Appalachia.

Moreover, the original outline of script, described as a kind of gender conflict between men's and women's work, featured not only a Pioneer mother, but an Indian Girl, a Fugitive, and a Citizen. In the end the story was winnowed down to the simple outline published in the preface to the Boosey & Hawkes score:

A pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse
in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The
bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful
and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older
neighbor suggests sorrow and then the rocky confidence of experience.
A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the
strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are
left quiet and strong in their new house.

It seemed to me that instead of the more European concept of "Love, Death, and Transfiguration," the tenor of Graham and Copland's more innocent and emphatically American fable is "Love, Guilt, and Consolation."

Here are my notes:
Into the yard of a newly built home, wonderfully represented by Isamu Noguchi's open walls with a porch-like structure on which sits a kind of rocking chair shaped like a butter churn, come the figures of the dance, first The Preacher (played in the original by Merce Cunningham and in the film version I saw by Bertram Ross), then the Pioneer Woman (Matt Tumey in the film version), and the Wife (Martha Graham in both the original and, at the age of 62, in the film). Four women (Worshippers) follow, who clap and dance joyfully, frolic, and, at moments, gesture prayer.

A flute, oboe, and clarinet dominate this early passage, and when the flute reaches its highest note, The Husband (Graham's favorite, Erik Hawkins in the original and Stuart Hodes in the film version) enters, lovingly stroking the side of his new house, as he moves forward in pony-like and proud struts and leaps.

The couple walk to each and move backwards, seemingly to reveal the history of their love, which is, through their various posturings, made somewhat ambiguous at times, with moments of fear revealed among their steady pleasure in one another.

Now The Preacher kicks up a kind of ruckus, with the Worshippers following behind him as acolytes reveling in what one might describes as is a kind of spiritual square dance, in which he also leaps, bends, grovels, stands, and lifts.

The Pioneer Woman comes forward expressing her own sorrows and delights, while the Husband quietly ponders his new life. The Wife turns to win the attention of her Husband, simultaneously demonstrating her own new fears and worries, and yet flirting joyfully with a kind of awkward hesitation.

At one point she takes up the baby of the Pioneer Woman, kneeling, entreating her husband. Is it a desire for a family or her fear for the responsibilities it will mean, the commitments and sacrifice? Clearly, it is both.

Although the storyline does not describe it as such, there seems to be also a tension between the two women, almost as if the Husband has previously known the Pioneer Woman and they been somehow involved.

But now the Preacher comes forward into the center, as the couple join him, turning to stare in opposite directions before they enter the church for the plain but joyous ceremony, which ends in the couple stretching, spinning in joy, leaping in the wonderment of it all. The shaker hymn, "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free," dominates the spirit of occasion.

Here the music changes, the Preacher suddenly becoming agitated, spinning forward almost in a kind of dervish, tearing at the air, renting his hair, damning, cursing, accusing, praying. What is their sin? What horror is he describing to them? Is it an actual or imagined transgression.

The Pioneer Woman comes forward as if to plead for the Preacher to cease, the Husband standing up, turned away in refusal of the sermon. So the Preacher gradually shifts from his violent gesturing, moving forward in a lighter tone and tune. The husband embraces the world, returning to his wife, while his wife dances a more agitated dance, focusing on her chair-rocker-milking stool as if she were reevaluating her situation. Again the Husband returns to her, as they repeat some of their earlier dances of joy, reiterating and repeating their testaments of love while Copland's score returns to "'Tis a gift to be simple," ending in a long bassoon chord.

The Wife turns from her former fears to a sense of relinquishment, resolution, consolation, as the couple kiss away their fears and embrace. The community moves off, the Preacher wishing them peace as he leaves. Husband and Wife now stand alone in their new domain.

Los Angeles, March 3, 2002

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