January 24, 2011
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
A Neal Porter Book: Roaring Brook Press, 2010
Martha Graham. If you’ve ever danced, you know the name but I knew very little about Graham and her work.
But this isn’t Graham’s story. This is the story of Appalachian Spring and how the ballet was born from the combined talents of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copeland and artist and set designer Isamu Noguchi. Dance. Music. Set. Graham may have had the initial idea but all three were essential to a successful ballet and that meant working with other equally powerful artists.
The text is simple straight-forward prose reminiscent of Graham’s work itself — clean, sometimes spare, but always moving. It tells about each artist and how he or she came to be the leaders in their fields. Perhaps more importantly it tells about how these artists, all equally demanding of themselves but also of each other, worked to meld their ideas into one final piece.
Do not believe reviewers who complain about a lack of tension. Maybe they skimmed the text. Maybe they didn’t pay attention to the art work. Who knows because I sure don’t. There is tension when Aaron Copeland sends her ideas back for revision. There is tension when the set arrives and the dancers have to learn to move through the limitations and unforgiving angles of this physical space. And there is tension when the dancers try things one way and then another and still Graham has a tantrum, mulishly refusing to back down until she figures out how to solve the problem.
This is more than a book about ballet. It is a book about the creative process — the birth of an idea and the evolution of that idea through necessary collaboration.
The beauty of this is the picture books themselves are wondrous acts of collaboration in this case bringing together two authors and an illustrator. Brian Floca’s black line and watercolor is a perfect match for this story, showing both the power of the dancers as well as their seemingly effortless grace.
But anyone who reads this book will know that effortless is something that ballet, art and collaboration are not.