Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca, Roaring Brook Press, 2010
Not only do I get to play “Appalachian Spring” next weekend, I stumbled across a picture book about it at our local library. Then, thanks to YouTube, I watched Martha Graham perform the ballet. What a treat.
To be honest, I’ve played a lot of music without knowing the story behind it. For one thing, I haven’t always been interested in doing the research on top of practicing my part. Besides, it is perfectly possible to play a piece well without digging deeply into its historical or theoretical context. But I can’t think of a single time that knowing more has detracted from a work, either.
This book details the collaboration between dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and artist Isamu Noguchi in creating the ballet “Appalachian Spring.” From struggling with the script and characters, to going back and forth about the set design, to finding the right notes, the best order of scenes, and the most expressive steps and movements, the authors guide readers through the complete creation of this ballet, from the barest bones of an idea to the first performance. It strikes me as a very good example of the creative process, and I like how both the text and illustrations capture the feel and mood of both the music and the dancing.
My favorite part of the book, though, is the final sentence. After taking readers through the premiere performance, the authors say,
…the life of Appalachian Spring goes on after that great night to become an American favorite, to be danced year after year. New dancers will take their turns to move to Aaron Copland’s music, to interpret Martha Graham’s steps, to dance through Isamu Noguchi’s set. And the collaboration will be created anew.
It would be easy to glide past those last seven words without much thought, but there’s so much packed into them. And the collaboration will be created anew. Classical musicians are not creators in quite the same sense that composers, artists, and writers are. They play a special role, taking something that has been created by someone else and bringing it to life in performance. Their role as interpreter means they are bound to somebody else’s creation, and they walk a line between being faithful to that other person’s intent and making it their own, “creating it anew” every time they play it. Then, too, there is the relationship between conductor and orchestra, and even between individuals in the orchestra, as they work together and respond off of one another. It becomes a living collaboration on all sorts of levels.
Beyond all that, too, there is the play between a piece of music, or a work of art, and its context. Now that I know some of the story behind “Appalachian Spring,” now that I have seen a video of Martha Graham dancing to the music, I will be playing with new understanding. Chances are there won’t be any noticeable changes in what I do, but I will get to interact with the music in a new way, with new understanding. I will step deeper into the collaboration myself, and keep company with some amazing people.
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