"Of all my ballets ('Appalachian Spring') is the one I cherish the most," wrote seminal modern dance choreographer Martha Graham in 1987. "Aaron Copland wrote the music for me and first called it 'Ballet for Martha.' I choreographed it and danced it with my then husband Erick Hawkins."
Many modern dance watchers also have tended to cherish this work among Graham's sizable output of great ballets. (It will be danced Friday and Sunday during the Graham Company's run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.)
For all the power of Graham's other dances with American themes, such as "Frontier" or "Letter to the World," or her amazing works based on Greek myths, such as "Cave of the Heart," "Night Journey" or "Errand into the Maze," audiences have found something special in "Appalachian Spring."
Created in 1944, the ballet tells a simple story. A young farm couple ruminate on their lives before getting married and setting up house in the wilderness. An itinerant preacher delivers a sermon. An older pioneer woman oversees the events with sympathy and wisdom. The newlyweds muse on their future as night falls.
In the course of the dance, Graham reveals the inner lives of the four principal characters--Wife, Husbandman, Pioneer Woman and Preacher. She shows that the couple will face a future that will not be all sweetness and light, but she also draws out the private and shared emotional resources they will be able to bring to the challenges.
Such is the power of Graham's images, however, that this very particular story broadens out to become a parable about Americans conquering a new land.
But Graham's view is not a sentimental one. The Wife and Husbandman come together, but also remain somewhat estranged by differences in their character. The Preacher's wedding sermon segues into fire-and-brimstone threats that have more than an edge of hysteria to them.
The Pioneer Woman's vision may be calm and wise, but it has been hard won. She remembers and sympathizes with the dreams of youth, but knows firsthand the disappointments in life and the harsh demands and dangers to be found in the still-untamed land.
The horizon may be wide and endless, but it also is empty. The encroaching night is not necessarily beneficent.
Graham's collaborators included Copland, who composed music with a distinctly American sound, and Isamu Noguchi, who created a spare, poetic set that evokes both a specific time and place, yet also suggests a mythic dimension.
Graham came to the Appalachian theme naturally; she was born in Allegheny, Pa., in 1894. In 1908, she moved with her parents to Santa Barbara, Calif., and from 1919-23 she was a member of the Denishawn company and school, the first American large modern dance company and the spawning ground of many of the major choreographers of the next generation.
But Graham left that company to pursue her own vision. She formed her first independent company--consisting of herself and three other dancers--in 1926 in New York. A year later, she opened her studio, and the Graham company has been going ever since.
Like other pioneers of the new dance movement, Graham revolted against her immediate predecessors with a commitment bordering on crusade. She and a few others like her set out to create styles of movement that would let them dance with individual expression.
Viewers at the time (there weren't very many) regarded the results as ugly. But the creators countered by claiming they were pursuing works of new dramatic power.
Faced with creating and codifying a new vocabulary of movement, Graham tapped into the natural rhythms of the body.
She focused on the basic breathing cycle--inhalation and exhalation--and from that developed her ideas of contraction and release of energy originating from the solar plexus. When properly done, these movements carry a visceral impact that transcends the intellect.
Graham's style is still the most widely taught modern dance technique in colleges and universities around the country.
Who: Martha Graham Dance Company.
When: Friday, Jan. 4, and Saturday, Jan. 5, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 6, at 2 p.m.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: One block east of South Coast Plaza shopping center.
Wherewithal: $13 to $40. (Student rush tickets one hour before each performance, subject to availability: $7.)
Where to call: (714) 556-2787.