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Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” Remembrance of Simpler Times

by Bonnie Rosenstock
December 17, 2017
Martha Graham Studio Theater
55 Bethune Street, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10014
(212) 229-9200
In 1942, during the dark days of World War II, the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., commissioned choreographer Martha Graham and composer Aaron Copeland to create a piece on an American theme. “They decided they wanted to create a work about American optimism, determination, frontier mentality and hope for the future,” explained Janet Eilber, Graham Company Artistic Director, in her introductory remarks preceding a glorious performance of the beloved “Appalachian Spring.” “They considered it their contribution to the war effort.”

“Appalachian Spring” was performed on December 1 and 2 in the intimate setting of the Graham Company home in Westbeth (55 Bethune Street) as part of its Studio Series. The iconic work, which debuted on October 30, 1944, relates the story of a young frontier couple on their wedding day. They are building their new home in the wilderness in springtime and imagining their bright future together, symbolic of the time when battle-scarred soldiers would be reunited with their loved ones. A pioneering woman, representing the spirit of the American Dream, blesses them and encourages them in their aspirations. An itinerant preacher and his four disciples, represent the fervor and joy of American religion.

Eilber related that Graham and Copeland were on opposite coasts, so there is a treasure trove of correspondence to draw on for historical reference. “The letters show that they discussed every aspect of the American experience,” said Eilber. Graham considered incorporating many characters from history and fiction, including frontiersman Davy Crockett, the abolitionist John Brown, Pocahontas—“the original one,” she quipped—Native Americans, the Puritans, as well as the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, primitive paintings and the murals in post offices. One version even had a reenactment onstage of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. All of these versions included spoken text and biblical phrases woven through.

But in the end, a simpler scenario emerged, pared down to eight symbolic characters. Graham performed The Bride role, with “great eagerness yet great steadiness about her, and she loves and plays with great completeness. The solo that follows has an electric eagerness about it, an eagerness for destiny that is the unconscious partner of youth,” said Eilber.

Erick Hawkins, who was Graham’s husband for a brief time, performed The Husband, May O’Donnell was The Pioneering Woman and Merce Cunningham was The Revivalist.

In describing the set she envisioned, Graham wrote, “The scene is the inside and outside of a house, the framework of a doorway, a Shaker rocking chair with its exquisite bonelike simplicity and a small fence that should signify what a fence means in a new country.” The spare set, which is still used today, was brilliantly realized by the sculptor and set designer Isamu Noguchi, her long-time collaborator.

Copeland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestral suite was inspired by the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts,” which is threaded throughout the dance. He composed the score without knowing the dance’s title or the choreography, which he saw at the dress rehearsal for the first time; he had been calling it “Ballet for Martha.” Graham told him she had found the phrase in a Hart Crane poem, “The Dance,” liked it and used it. The poem, however, refers to an actual spring, a source of water, not the season, to which the work has been attributed, a story Copeland loved to tell.

The performers I saw on December 1 are praiseworthy successors to the long line of Graham dancers who have inhabited these celebrated roles. It featured the lithe, winsome Anne O’Donnell (The Bride), the strong, solid Abdiel Jacobsen (The Husbandman), the fervent, sincere Lorenzo Pagano (The Preacher) and the elegant, nurturing Natasha M. Diamond-Walker (The Pioneering Woman). So Young An, Laurel Dalley Smith, Marzia Memoli and Anne Souder were perfectly in sync and delightful as the smitten Followers. “I’m not sure if the followers are in love with religion or in love with the preacher,” commented Eilber.

The dance itself highlighted square dance patterns, skips and paddle turns, curtsies and grand rights and lefts (alternating hand pulls), plus classic Graham cupped hands and perfectly executed leaps. In some ways “Appalachian Spring” feels outdated, but the sentiments and values it expresses never go out of fashion.

Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood


Photo © & courtesy of Melissa Sherwood

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