Posted on December 4, 2018
Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring premiered at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, in 1944. The composer Aaron Copland initially titled the work “ballet for Martha” when he began writing the commission. Despite Copland’s appellation, working on the role of the husbandman in Graham’s piece was different to any other dance work I’d encountered in my career so far. The ballets that fill my personal repertoire are generally characterised by a singing quality; an embodiment of melody. Appalachian Spring offered something more austere and deliberate. Graham’s movement carved out space in Copland’s score for the dancer to create their own sense of rhythm, echoing the way Graham’s technique asks you to hollow out the solar plexus of your body in an elemental contraction.
I’m thinking about Appalachian Spring this month because the piece still hasn’t settled in my mind; still developing like an unfamiliar perfume on the skin. You could spend an entire career perfecting Graham’s technique, so what was more beguiling to me in the time I had was the mental challenge of making Appalachian Spring ring true. Working and talking with two regisseurs from the Martha Graham Trust, Peggy Lyman Hayes and Peter Sparling, revealed how dense the work is. Peter reminded me not to hold my torso in such a “European, baroque” way. I’ve never considered this my default stance, and trying to break out of that mould was a challenge. He then asked me to make movements appear like they were from a “woodcut print”. Peggy urged me to make each movement look very deliberate. One moment where the husbandman touches the bride’s shoulder had me instinctively go for naturalism. Peggy wanted a larger arm movement, where the descent of my elbow corresponded with the forceful drawing down of both scapula. I wouldn’t say the movement became archaic, but for me it then took on the feeling of classical mime; codified and demonstrative.
What struck me most as a performer was the stage space. The set designed by Isamu Noguchi is mind-bending, in that out of a few spectral shafts of polished wood and a singular wall, the performer really feels they inhabit a very real space, at once domestic and public. It’s like some sort of magic circle has been drawn, and we’re all complicit in the make-believe. One comment made by Peter resonated. Downstage left there is a fence from which the husbandman spends two lengthy periods standing and looking out into the auditorium. Peter obliquely suggested it represents whatever “a new fence means in a new town.” I could have got lost for hours thinking about the different interpretations here. Fences are for marking territory: one is safe within the space, and exposed on the other side. Symbolism runs throughout Appalachian Spring. The young couple, the sage-like Pioneer women, sycophantic followers and unnervingly fervent Preacher are really archetypes for different parts of American society.
Graham’s world is full of imagery and imagination. Peggy said that working with Graham was a demanding process; the choreographer would only be interested in a dancer if they wanted to give back to her with their own mind. Something that held talismanic power during the process was Graham’s idea of “blood memory”. For Graham, our aspirations, heritage and fears as humans are held in our bones, nerves and muscles, and dancing is a way to connect and disseminate these to an audience. This invitation to explore deep, emotional recesses of my psyche – in which I took my first steps – helped make sense of the husbandman, created on Ethan Hawkins. He could be interpreted in a one-dimensional way, simply the embodiment of happy, robust masculinity; “the Adam figure” as Peter referred to him. Moments of Copland’s score, however, have a sense of terror, full of anxiety. This Adam also embodies the fear we all have at some point, during the darkest hours of the night, whether it be guilt, or fear of failure, or of disappointing somebody. It contrasts to earlier moments when the husbandman percussively slaps his thigh, the sound joyfully asserting his identity as lover and provider. The bride, too, has moments of fear and doubt as she thinks forwards about what her life might bring. This unease is the counterpoint to the image of an ideal America, whether past or future, that Graham depicts. Peter highlighted how Appalachian Spring takes on a thoughtful dynamic within the context of this present point of political history in the US.
Graham chose the title for her piece from a section of Hart Crane’s poem The Dance, from the collection The Bridge. “O Appalachian Spring, I gained the ledge” points towards the sense of endeavour the idealistic bride and husbandman have. A further line of Crane’s continues: “…that violet wedge, of Adirondacks.” Looking out into the dark of the auditorium, I imagined what that violet wedge might be. The unusual word “Adirondacks”, of Native American origin, refers to mountains. Its two strong “d” sounds, bouncy and percussive, helped with the mood of some of my movements. More cogently, it gave me a sense of weirdness and strangeness, like a word you might find in Lewis Carroll’s The Jabberwocky. I imagined this feeling is what the 19th century pioneers felt when they looked beyond their homesteads into the wilderness. In this way, my own feelings of unfamiliarity related to theirs. Not only was this my first dip into Martha Graham’s canon, I was a young man from the UK trying to embody the hopeful spirit of the US. It’s the greatest pleasure of my profession: to try to have different blood.
Pictured: Sarasota Ballet in Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring. Photographs by Frank Atura.