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Pioneering Women

My first exposure to “Appalachian Spring” was the music—a sixth grade fieldtrip to the Denver Symphony Orchestra—long before I heard about Martha Graham. If my teachers pointed out that Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer Prize winning composition was made for a work of modern dance—indeed, that it might not have been what it is, without the choreographer’s vision—that information passed me by. Even steadfast Graham followers may not know the story behind the creation of Graham’s most famous work.

Performance

Graham Studio Series: “Suite from Appalachian Spring”

Place

Martha Graham Studio Theater, New York City, NY, May 2, 2024

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Jacob Larsen as the Husbandman and Anne Souder, the Bride with the Followers (left to right): Amanda Moreira, Meagan King, So Young An, Devin Loh, Lloyd Knight, The Preacher in Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” Photograph by Maclaine Lowery

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In a studio showing on May 2, the Martha Graham Dance Company shared details of the extraordinary collaboration between Graham and Copland, with “Suite from Appalachian Spring.” “There was a revolution happening in the arts in America,” said artistic director Janet Eilber to set the stage. In the years between WWI and WWII, she said, “American artists of every form were searching for ways to truly express the American mentality, physicality, philosophy—our own unique rhythms and relationship to our vast space.”

Because the creative exchange took place by mail—Graham in the East and Copland, out West—an extensive paper trail exists in the MGDC archive. The final work that premiered in 1944 is a distillation of copious ideas Graham expressed over a period of two years beginning a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her topics covered territory as broad as America’s geography is expansive: the Civil War, religion, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, artist Grant Wood, Thoreau, Mark Twain, poets Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams, Pocahontas, Davy Crockett, John Brown, and more. “This was a period of intense anxiety in the country,” said Eilber. “Immigration, nationalism, racism were very much part of the national conversation at that time, as they continue to be.”

While Copland worked to compose music that would “evoke the immense space and unique rhythms of the country,” Eilber said, Graham’s ideas swelled ever larger. She wrote to Copland about her struggle for simplicity: “It is hard to do American things without either becoming pure folk or else appearing a little like a mural in a middle western railway station or post office . . . ”

Eventually her focus settled on a wedding celebration—a rich metaphor for optimism about the future as the country was coming out of the war. “This has to do with living in a new town, some place where the first fence has just gone up.  . . . There should be a sense of countryside, fields, dear relationships, and the usual in the life of a people,” wrote Graham. “It should happen as memories flow from the heart.”

Anne Souder as the Bride in Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” Photograph by Maclaine Lowery

Copland’s emotional score carries both a yearning and an exuberance that reflect and enhance Graham’s movement scenario. The Shaker folk song that he adapted for the work is a recognizable stamp much the way Graham’s choreography is a tutorial in her movement technique.

For the showing, a few iconic props of Isamu Noguchi’s set are arranged to frame the space: the Shaker style rocking chair on a platform, a simple bench, a sculptural rock, and to represent a split rail fence, a portable ballet barre. Seven of the company’s current company members perform five excerpts and Eilber narrates between, using a selection of Graham’s own words: “To the American dancer I say: Know our country. When its vitality, its freshness, its overabundant youth and vigor, its contrasts of plenitude and barrenness are made manifest in movement on the stage, we begin to see the American dance."

Graham created the bride’s role for herself. Erick Hawkins was the strapping Husbandman, and Merce Cunningham, the captivating preacher. Jacob Larsen, dancing The Husbandman, bears a striking resemblance to earlier casting choices—Hawkins and Stuart Hodes. The role shines with masculine pride and “can-do” attitude. Larsen’s handstand, barrel turns, and kicks to the side gulp up acres of space. His jumps and leaps seem to hover above the ground. When he slaps his lifted thigh, it's clear that he’s handling the reins while riding a horse.

Lloyd Knight as the Preacher with the Followers left to right: So Young An, Meagan King, Devin Loh, Amanda Moreira in Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” Photograph by Maclaine Lowery

Anne Souder, as the Bride, is smiling and fresh-faced compared with Graham’s more sober affect. For the showing, Souter performs in two duets with Larsen, and a wonderful solo that reveals the Bride’s inner dialogue of hopes and dreams, that includes holding an imaginary infant in her arms. She flutters her hands near her ears as if to cool herself down as she walks with a lilting step. The bustle of her dress becomes a vivid partner as she tosses the heavy bundle of fabric behind her, suggestive of burdens implicit in the role of wife. (During the Q&A, Eilber pointed out how all the skirts are hung from the hips, rather than the waist, so we can clearly see the subtle contractions of the torso.) Here is how Graham described the Bride: “There is a great eagerness yet a great steadiness about her. . . . She is what we like to think of when we think of the American woman. Her solo has an electric eagerness about it, an eagerness for destiny that is the unconscious partner of youth.”

The sections that interest me most are those with the Preacher and his four Followers. These characters seem ripe for a tongue-in-cheek interpretation, and sure enough, Eilber confirms that Graham intended this as satire: “There are so many cults here,” Graham wrote, referring to religion in America. “There is something in the soil that seems to make them flourish.” Longtime Graham dancer Lloyd Knight fairly drips with hellfire and brimstone as the Preacher in broad brimmed hat and black waistcoat. He’s tightly wound: beseeching God by walking on his knees and bouncing like there are springs under the balls of his feet. When he points an accusatory finger, his hand becomes a pistol.

The four Followers (So Young An, Meagan King, Devin Loh, and Amanda Moreira) in pale bonnets and sleeves ringed with fluff, scurry around the Preacher like baby chicks, at one point kneeling so he can recline on their backs. “We are not sure whether they are inspired by his religious fervor or by his personal charms,” Eilber says. The character we don’t see in these excerpts is Pioneer Woman, originally played by May O’Donnell, whom Eilber points out is the spiritual center of the community—not the Preacher.

The showing closes with a duet from the marriage celebration, and this is where the Shaker hymn comes in. I can’t help but hear the lyrics in my head: “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free.“ This scene has no violence, no disturbance,” wrote Graham.  “It has a warmth, a kind of sweetness that need be in no sense sentimental. It is here that the whole meaning of what all the work and frontiering has been about should appear. And in some way this line of hope and peace and security should enter again at the ending as the open road.” Larsen lifts Souder in an embrace and swings her around, her massive skirt flaring. He then wraps her in his arms and they gaze together into the distance, their features coming to the stillness of a painted portrait.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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