Modern dance, then and now

A 1944 recording of Martha Graham’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ is streaming for free

4 minute read
Still resonating: dancer Matt Turney performed the Pioneer Woman in an early production of ‘Appalachian Spring.’ (Photo by Martha Swope, courtesy of the New York Public Library.)
Still resonating: dancer Matt Turney performed the Pioneer Woman in an early production of ‘Appalachian Spring.’ (Photo by Martha Swope, courtesy of the New York Public Library.)

If Appalachian Spring sounds familiar, you may know it as the Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestral suite created by American composer Aaron Copland in 1944. But did you know that this famous composition began as a ballet commission?

You should, because choreographer Martha Graham commissioned the suite and gave it its name—Copland had simply titled his work Ballet for Martha. Appalachian Spring remains an important dance that resonates artistically and thematically. And a black-and-white 1944 recording with its original cast—including Merce Cunningham, who went on to form his own modern dance company, and Graham herself—is especially powerful.

Revisiting the legacy

An icon of dance, Graham created her own style of movement that is still taught today. She also developed a unique approach to choreography that drew upon collaboration with artists in other mediums. Nearly a century ago, Graham founded our country’s oldest dance company, Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC). When I last saw MGDC perform, at the Annenberg Center in January 2019, I was struck by both Graham’s choreography and her legacy. She changed the dance world forever: everything since seems shaped by her style, which rejected the formalism, rigidity, and elitism of classical ballet. Yet Graham’s dance vocabulary draws from ballet, with visually stunning and deeply moving results.

The 1944 performance of Appalachian Spring is a testament to Graham’s enduring influence. Streaming for free on MGDC’s YouTube channel, the recording is a rare find from the company’s extensive archive. Previously available only to researchers, this and other materials from MGDC’s archive are now accessible to all on YouTube, as well as via the New York Public Library. A cursory look wowed me: I perused decades of photographs, playbills, and recordings, including a remarkable video of Helen Keller joining Graham and dancers for an in-studio rehearsal.

The benefits of black and white

The poor quality (compared to today’s videos) of the original-cast recording could not take away from the power of Appalachian Spring, Graham’s vision, and the dance’s themes. In fact, I found that seeming flaws—black-and-white film and inconsistent lighting and focus—unexpectedly enhanced this performance, in large part because it is impossible to take in every detail at once. In that way, it was like watching a live dance performance or sporting event: the stage or the playing field is so vast and full of moving bodies and sensory input.

I find that many 21st-century recordings of dance performances evoke watching sports on TV: the camera’s hyperfocus and ability to show different angles simultaneously deliver an impressive yet unnatural experience. Here, the lack of focus that renders MGDC dancers’ faces into a blur lends Appalachian Spring a haunting, timeless quality. In comparison, a beautifully performed August 2019 recording of the same dance seems almost too clear, too clean.

The essence of modern dance

The plot revolves around three groups of characters experiencing springtime in the American wilderness. A man and woman, the Husbandman (Erick Hawkins) and the Bride (Graham), begin to build a life together. A revivalist preacher (Cunningham) and his followers (Nina Fonaroff, Pearl Lang, Marjorie Mazia, and Yuriko) seek salvation. Meanwhile, a Pioneering Woman (May O’Donnell) dreams of the Promised Land.

Graham’s evocative choreography and well-designed costumes combine with the precise dancing, exuberant score, and spare set designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi in a memorable performance. Appalachian Spring captures the essence of modern dance, as well as modernism itself, in drawing from the traditions of the past, breaking with them, and forging something interdisciplinary and new. Noguchi’s set offers the suggestion of structures, such as two steps and a platform that represent a front porch and an angled stand that serves as the preacher’s pulpit.

Simple gifts

Copland’s composition is similarly modernist in its incorporation of Elder Joseph Brackett’s Shaker song “Simple Gifts” (1848). Together with the transcendent choreography, these elements create distinct and different scenes within a small and vaguely defined space. Graham adds variation in tempo and level to convey story as well as emotion, such as a balletic barn dance that reflects the joy of moving with others and a bouncing, leapfrogging sequence that portrays the followers’ enthusiastic submission to their leader and their faith. Cunningham is breathtaking as the Preacher, all sky-high leaps and commanding presence enhanced by his broad-brimmed hat and trailing frock coat.

Watch another performance of Appalachian Spring and you will see the same set and costumes, along with the same steps, retained because they fit the dance so well. But there is no need to watch any other version: the 1944 recording captures the timeless qualities of both Graham’s dance innovations and the themes of Appalachian Spring. Then, as now, we strive to maintain our faith in the wilderness, some of us looking for a leader to show us the way out; others simply clinging to each other, clinging to hope. The future of dance includes streaming performances, and the original cast recording of Appalachian Spring is a simple gift from the past for the present and the future.

What, When, Where

A rare archival recording of Appalachian Spring, the full-length ballet created by Martha Graham with Aaron Copland’s original score, is now available on Martha Graham Dance Company’s YouTube channel. Watch it here.

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