I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Pioneers: Appalachian Spring

by Brian Correia
Sept. 17, 2014

When looking at any type of art, whether it be painting, film, music, or anything else, there is often a tendency to attribute the quality, power, and who knows what else to just one artist that we deem the mastermind – the painter, the director, the songwriter. Even if it's very clearly a collaboration, we're often way more comfortable pinning it to the name that's cooler or better known. The reason for this is difficult to pinpoint. Maybe it really is a valid way to look at things, or maybe it's just easier that way. Every once in awhile, though, a project comes along that is a pure collaboration in the truest sense of the word; a project that would be radically different if not for the involvement of several diverse minds. Appalachian Spring is such a project and the product of a dancer/choreographer, a composer, and a sculptor: Martha Graham, Aaron Copland, and Isamu Noguchi, respectively.

Martha Graham might be called the Great American Dancer, if there is such a thing. The “American” qualifier may not even be necessary. Quite simply, she is one of the most influential dancers slash choreographers of all time. Unfortunately, the best way to describe Graham's impact may be to compare her to others (and crib from her Wikipedia article): Graham is to dancing as Picasso is to painting, as Stravinsky is to classical music, or as Frank Lloyd Wright is to architecture. Which is to say, she completely and radically redefined the possibilities and peoples' expectations of the form.

Graham, after a short stint as a teacher at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, founded the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. That school would slowly but surely grow in stature and propel Graham to the forefront of the dance world. Her concerts were not always escapes for their audience, but instead reflected the troubled world around them. Over the course of her career (which spanned over fifty years, more than any other modern dancer), Graham would choreograph 191 pieces (more than any other choreographer) and was the artistic director of what became the oldest dance company in the United Statesi.

Of course, Appalachian Spring is not simply the work of one person. Graham knew to surround herself with artists that would challenge and complement her. PBS called Graham's collaborators Copland and Noguchi “some of the foremost artists of her timeii,” and they were, as you'll see after you watch Appalachian Spring, obviously right. Copland, from Brooklyn, had been composing music since at least age 11. By the time he began his work with Graham, he had worked his way up to a stature that his biographer would call “Dean of American composers” after writing a slew of music in many different styles and mixing and mingling with an endless list of hugely influential artists, both in America and abroad. Copland's most famous works are probably Appalachian Spring and the handful of other American ballets that he wrote. However, he would continue to write more diverse music (including scores for several Hollywood films), critique, conduct, teach, and who knows what else.

Graham commissioned Aaron Copland to compose the piece in 1944. She was looking for an American ballet. Having written several successful ballets by then (Billy the Kid in 1938 and Rodeo in 1942), he was the man for the job. Copland took inspiration from the music of the Shakers (who, interestingly enough, were actually founded in eighteenth-century England) and wrote a piece he simply dubbed Ballet for Martha. Graham titled the piece (borrowing it from the line of a Hart Crane poem) and ran with it, her choreography telling the story of a group of American pioneers.

Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese American artist who designed the sets for Appalachian Spring, was a frequent collaborator with Graham. The beautiful sets he designed for her are only a small part of his beautiful, massive, and influential oeuvre. Noguchi's real legacy is in public works and, interestingly, furniture design. His breathtaking sculptures and installations grace parks and city corners from coast to coast in America (including Red Cube in New York City and Black Sun in Seattle) and around the world. His modernist set of furniture, including an eponymous table that you would definitely recognize (go ahead, Google Image it) is still found everywhere.

The minimalist set designs that Noguchi provided for Graham, particularly in Appalachian Spring, are far from traditional. The simple, abstract pieces that adorn the stage clearly reflect Noguchi's Japanese heritage but somehow evoke the ballet's farm setting with ease. Their simplicity emphasizes and complements the intricate beauty of the dance. In Noguchi, Graham found another perfect collaborator.

It is easy to give all the credit to the creative forces, but especially as we're here in the spirit of collaboration appreciation, one cannot forget the dancers. Without the skilled and graceful group with which Graham surrounded herself, there would be no ballet. Appalachian Spring's most notable dancer besides Graham herself is Erick Hawkins, her future husband and the first male member of her dance troupe.

The choreographer/dancer, composer, and sculptor that contributed to the ballet reflect the diversity and innovative spirit on which our country prides itself. That a ballet with such exotic influences and avant-garde leanings could become as popular as it did when our country was in the throes of World War II is a testament to the overwhelming power of true artistry. Appalachian Spring was not only the story of a group of American pioneers, but a product of such a group: Three of the most innovative artists of all time at the top of their game.

iMusical and Choreographic Integration... by Marta Robertson

Brian Correia is a budding computer scientist and aspiring writer from Boston, Massachusetts who couldn't decide which hip-hop lyric to put in his byline. The top three, in no particular order, were as follows: “cooler than a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,” “spiced out Calvin Coolidge loungin' with six duelers,” and “I got techniques drippin' out my buttcheeks.” He is on Twitter (@brianmcorreia) and Tumblr (brianmcorreia.tumblr.com) like the rest of the kids.