Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan's Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
illustrated by Brian Floca
Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.
Martha Graham's early artistic collaboration
Bravo for this undertaking. Unless you grew up in the middle of the 20th century and even then, unless you were a girl taking ballet lessons and disenchanted with them and your body, you might never have heard of modern dance and the great choreographer, Martha Graham. Here now, is a book about this American dance pioneer and the making of a strikingly original modern dance ballet.
I discovered modern dance, and Martha Graham in the 1970’s. Born at the turn of the 19th century, Martha was in her 70’s then. She was a female choreographer and dancer I could relate to because she insisted on her own style and a new approach to training the body.
In Ballet for Martha, we see drawings of a dancer contracting and releasing through the torso of her body. Ballet was focused on the appearance of defying gravity, of keeping the torso straight and using the arms and legs to express lofty ideas. Martha wanted to express larger human themes and to use and celebrate the earth and gravity.
“My dancers never fall to simply fall. They fall to rise.”
She also said, “Why should an arm, moved a certain way, suggest a wildflower or a hand, or rain? The hand is too wonderful a thing to be an imitation of something else.” Martha wanted the body to convey emotional truth, she wanted dance to be truth.
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
Ballet for Martha is about more than Martha Graham herself though, it is also about artistic collaboration and creation. She worked with seminal artists of her time and for the ballet Appalachian Spring, she engaged the composer Aaron Copland to create new music and her long time visual artist collaborator, Isamu Noguchi, to design the sets.
Through watercolor illustrations and text we see Martha trying to articulate what her vision of the story of Appalachian Spring is. She writes to Aaron that it is “a legend of American living…A ballet about a new home, a new family, a new life. A dance about America.”
She sends her letter and waits for his reply. Together they think it through. And this takes time. Finally they agree on the story line and the characters.
As a pioneering artist, Graham's work was not always accepted. Some of her previous dances were booed by audiences. Not all her movements are “beautiful” but she is trying to convey more about life than beauty in both movement and music.
One of my favorite images is a close-up of Aaron Copland composing at the piano. Behind him, filling two pages, is a musical score.
“As he searches for a melody, he discovers an old song, a Shaker hymn.” This becomes the thread that weaves through his music.
It took 2 years of work for this ballet to come to fruition. And though this creation takes place during the Second World War, that is not actually part of the ballet itself. (You can read more about Noguchi’s actions during this time at the end of the book.)
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
This book is unique in its approach, an attempt to describe the creative process of three artists and capture in two dimensions, an extremely four dimensional experience. The watercolor illustrations delineate in simply drawn vignettes (like fashion illustrations) the restrained nature of Quaker culture that Martha chose as the cultural setting of the characters and the wedding ceremony.
Young children will appreciate the simplicity of the story line: a bride and groom and their wedding, a fiery preacher, moving into a new home. In the marriage ceremony scene, without actual music and movement, the book relies heavily on the drawings and writing to convey feelings of ecstasy, quiet, pride and enthusiasm of the dancers.
Children may understand about working together to make a piece of art. And sometimes the authors pose questions to get readers thinking about what the movement or music might be conveying. In a scene with the Preacher, “the music turns fierce. …His long arms point toward the young couple. Is he warning them about hard times ahead?”
As an adult and former dancer, I am grateful for the attempt to record an artist in a great historical moment. But I wonder how well it will speak to those unfamiliar with any part of dance choreography, music composition and set design.
The drawings are mostly not inspiring (the notable exceptions are those of The Preacher, The Groom and previously mentioned composer), and the few actual photographs at the end of Ballet for Martha are stunning but not nearly enough to convey the enormity of this endeavor and the thrill of the performance.
In this digital age of easy access to YouTube, and online music, I fear Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring will disappoint many children. Nonetheless, it is an important historical record of a woman breaking barriers of convention, expressing her way of seeing, of feeling and understanding the American mythos and experiences.
Read more of Suzanne's reviews.
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