Appalachian Spring: An Artistic Collaboration

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appspring1Each year the American Library Association (ALA) recognizes outstanding contributions in the field of children’s literature. Many people are familiar with the Caldecott Award for a picture book, and the Newberry Award for a work of children’s literature; however, the ALA also recognizes works in other categories of children’s literature.
The Siebert Informational Book Award recognizes an informational (non-fiction) book. This year, Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan and illustrated by Brian Floca, was chosen as a Siebert Honor Book. The book explores the collaboration between three eminent American artists: choreographer, costume designer, and dancer Martha Graham, set designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and composer Aaron Copland. This week’s Newspaper in Education feature takes a closer look at two collaborations: the ballet and the Siebert Honor Book.

Martha Graham’s dance

When you think of ballet, what comes to mind? How should ballet look? In the 1940s, many considered ballet a sophisticated European-born dance performed only by serious, formally taught dancers. In 1944, Martha Graham, the “mother of modern dance” debuted Appalachian Spring, a ballet set in the mid 1800s with a narrative about a newlywed couple beginning their life together in the American frontier. The dance’s narrative combined their joy and hope with the American pioneer spirit.appspring2
A video of Appalachian Spring is presented on the author’s Web site in four parts; it is important that you watch the entire ballet. List the characters. What does that list reveal about the narrative? Define the American pioneer spirit. How does the dance evoke that spirit? How does the title support the dance’s themes? How does the ballet capture the mindset of a newlywed couple? Until this time, most sets were painted backdrops. How does this set differ? How does the ballet join music, costumes, and choreography to extend and to add to the dance’s meaning? When Appalachian Spring debuted on October 30, 1944, America had been at war for three years. Considering that historical context, why might have this piece appealed to Americans? What is your response to the dance? Is this what you expected of ballet? What questions do you have for Martha Graham or Isamu Noguchi?

Aaron Copland’s Composition

Graham invited Copland to write the music for her ballet and provided him with a detailed scenario outlining the narrative. He suggested minor changes to the scenario and, independently, composed the music to fit. In 1945, Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for its composition. Appalachian Spring continues to be a celebrated classic of American music. To learn more about the piece, visit NPR’s Milestones of the Millenium. Begin by reading the article. What does the article highlight about the music? Use the menu in the left margin to access Historic Events.
appspring3At the bottom of the article is an audio link to the companion NPR program. The program includes interviews with Copland, and commentators, and ends with the full suite. Drag the play bar found along the bottom of the Real Player screen to the right to isolate several excerpts from the program. Begin by listening from 1:55 to 4:51. Do you agree with the narrator’s assessment of Appalachian Spring as being “peaceful and joyful?” How do you think these qualities fit the narrative?
Next, advance to 5:47 and listen through 14:40. This excerpt begins with letters written by Copland at the time he was creating Appalachian Spring, and continues with a discussion of Simple Gifts. What do you learn about how Graham and Copland worked together? How long did it take Copland to compose the score? How did the ballet—music, dance, and set—embody simplicity? What is Simple Gifts? What is the connection between it and Appalachian Spring? What do you know of the Shakers? What questions do you have about the Shakers? How did Copland limit his frame to keep his composition simple?
Finally, advance to 19:32 and listen to the entire piece. Revisit the elements highlighted in the NPR article; respond to those ideas. How does it affect your experience of the music to hear it alone—without the visual dance? When you close your eyes and listen to the music, what do you imagine? What story does the music tell you?

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Springappspring4

Appalachian Spring is the result of three collaboration American masters: Graham, Noguchi, and Copland. The result is an American masterpiece that intertwines a visual set and dance with music. Coincidentally, the book A Ballet for Martha was written by collaborating authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan along with illustrator Brian Floca. What conditions do you suspect must exist for a collaboration to succeed? To learn about the author’s collaboration, visit the Bio link at their Web site. The Bio section has tabs for the team and each author; visit each. What makes each author qualified to write on this topic? What do they share about their collaborative process? How is collaboration different now than it was in 1943 when Graham, Copland, and Noguchi collaborated?
Next learn more about the book and its reviews. What did reviewers appreciate about the book? Are you interested in reading it? Why? What characteristics and features do you expect are necessary to win a Siebert Honor or Award?
Newspaper Activities

Read the news in your local newspaper and locate articles that demonstrate collaboration. Select one article that covers an unusual or particularly important collaboration. Introduce the facts to your classmates: Who is collaborating on what type of project? What skills or knowledge will each contribute to the project? Why is this pairing unusual or important to people beyond the project? How do you imagine it might change your life or the world? What does it remind you of? What questions do you have for the collaborators?

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