What’s so great about Appalachian Spring?

March 30, 2008

It’s one of those hallowed masterpieces, but what really is it that allows Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944) to last so long? Watching the Juilliard students perform this masterpiece, along with two other ballets that are also no slouches (Tudor’s Dark Elegies and Limon’s There Is a Time) I decided that it has something to do with the movement vocabulary. Yes, the narrative structure is crystal clear, yes it’s amazing how only eight people imply a whole frontier, yes the shifts in mood—light and dark, civilized and lonely, the present and the future—are stirring, yes the way the choreography and Copland’s music suggest the hope of a new life is magnificent.  But I think it’s also the fact that Graham gave each role a different vocabulary (I am thinking of the four Followers as a single character). The Pioneering Woman is stolid, totally vertical and upstanding, slightly repressed with her elbows held close to her sides. She has seen hard times. The Husbandman takes striding steps, shows trust by opening his limps out wide. He’s pure, strong, and ready for a challenge. The Bride, in contrast, always has some kind of twist to her upper body, which gives her a flirtatious, happy look. She does deep pitch turns—she is plunging into this marriage. She expresses her energy and joy by crooking her elbows and jabbing her own shoulders like a woodpecker while springing on her legs. This is pure Graham: There’s a hint of obsessiveness in her happiness. The Revivalist is the only one who does deep contractions, emptying himself out as he accuses with a piercing look or an arm pointing. Evil will come to you, and you and you, he seems to say,  to Copland’s spare erratic rumble, if you don’t temper your love of live with the fear of god. In his first movement in his second solo, he slams an opposite arm and leg together with a visceral contraction, as though the first person he accuses is himself. And yet he jumps ecstatically, with chest open to God, maybe to show that he can touch heaven, or maybe to rid himself of human sin. The four Followers, those bouncy little ladies in bonnets, clap with cupped hands, clap the floor, surround him with springy adoration. Their idolatry is untempered by reflection or experience or individuality. You would never mistake them for the Pioneering Woman. They haven’t been through life the way she has. And the revivalist counts on their need to be given the Word and ingest it whole.

    As performed by the Juilliard student son their Masterworks of the 20th Century program, with music performed by Juilliard’s Axiom Ensemble, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater this last weekend, Appalachian Spring was edifying.