Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book #327: Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan, Illustrated by Brian Floca

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This illustrated non-fiction book tells the story of the creation of Appalachian Spring, one of the most well-known American modern dance ballets, which was a collaboration between dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and artist/scenic designer Isamu Noguchi. The book follows the ballet from a story developed by Graham through the rehearsal process to the opening night performance on October 30, 1944. “But the life of Appalachian Spring goes on after the great night / to become an American favorite, / to be danced year after year.”

The text of this American Library Association Notable Children’s Book is descriptive, yet lyrical. Much like Graham’s dancing it is simple and direct, yet layered with contextual and atmospheric information. The length and complexity of this illustrated book make it suitable for upper elementary through high school students. A few pages are spent on each of the collaborators, however as the title suggests, all interactions are focused around Graham. The detailed watercolor and ink illustrations depict realistic scenes. The dancers’ bodies are anatomically correct and the movements are specific evoking Graham’s unique style of dance. Several pages are devoted to a detailed, linear description of the ballet itself. Floca uses a combination of small images that convey sequences of movement, as well as larger images that plant the dancers in the context of Noguchi’s minimalist set. The text is careful to describe the movement and present possible ideas, but it does not limit the reader to one interpretation of the ballet. The back matter includes biographical information about the three collaborators, extensive and detailed notes and sources, and a black and white photograph of the original production of the ballet.

Read this book before attending a performance of Appalachian Spring or watching the videos of a 1959 performance of the ballet. This is also a good book to read to prepare students for reading Russell Freedman’s biography, Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life.

The Virginia Arts Festival and Martha Graham Dance Company put together resources for student lessons based on several of Graham’s dance pieces. This festival featured a part of the Appalachian Spring ballet, so look for references to ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple in this document. I especially like the sections that provide more information on Graham and her dance technique. Check out page 8 to learn about some of the key principles of her technique and page 9, which discusses specific Graham movements. Many of these movements can be seen in the illustrations for Ballet for Martha. For instance, Floca illustrates a single dancer contracting and releasing on page 9 and a dancer in the middle of a cave turn on page 8.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has a great reader’s guide, which features many discussion questions, as well as a list of vocabulary words featured in the book.

Pair this book with Dance by Bill T. Jones and Susan Kuklin for a unit on modern dance. Graham’s technique has greatly influenced other modern dancers and choreographers. Can you see any of her style in Bill T. Jones’ movements?


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