Last night we took our kids to a concert of choral music, and right in the middle of the program, one of the second grade mommies from our school stepped to the front of the ensemble, opened her mouth, and let loose with some of the purest, most accomplished, happiest music I have ever heard a human being produce. We had no idea.
Such moments are revelatory. To see a person stand at the intersection of discipline and imagination and bring forth something as unexpected as art... well it blew my mind, I can tell you. What could you do, what could any child do, what could any child not do, with an idea and hard work and desire?
Dance is, I think, a perfect art for demonstrating all this. Dance can be viscerally understood - while orchestral music can be difficult to unravel and most of the visual arts can be difficult to appreciate without a little training, even children can imagine mimicking the moves they see on stage. Listening to the music, we see how the dancers' motions interact with or counterpoint the sound. Although it's supposed to look easy, our bodies can understand how hard those bodies are working and how much they have practiced.
This is why I am so glad to see Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Yes, it's got to be Martha. It's got to be Copland. Martha because her forms and movements are original and natural and can be explained without referring to centuries of obscure tradition. Copland because the music is narrative, declares its emotional states, showcases individual instruments, and is fun.
Greenberg and Jordan's book outlines the process of making Appalachian Spring from raw concept to performance-ready. They show us experimentation, improvisation, refinement and frustration. They show us Martha's collaboration with Copland and with Isamu Noguchi, who designed the set, emphasizing the respect and communication that made these collaborations seem so seamless.
Next, the book takes us through the piece as performed. Without a single lapse into analytical critic-speak, the dance is narrated. The authors use simple verbs and unflowery adjectives to tell us what is happening and how the dancers move, while Brian Floca draws moments of stillness or whirling movement. When I think about Brian Floca's work, I automatically think of detailed, technical, inanimate drawings. I think of Lightship and Moonshot, both masterpieces. I am so happily surprised to see the gestural delicacy he brings to these dancers. His lines are loose but purposeful. Bodies have weight and volume, expressions are drawn with economy and precision. As Martha would have demanded.
And after the standing ovation that Martha's company receives for this performance, we turn the page to see another company performing the ballet - a company with African American dancers, a company that might be performing Appalachian Spring now, in any kid's town.
Or on any kid's home football field: