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Appalachian Spring: The Idealized Vision of America’s Past

Introduction

The art a nation produces is essential to the construction of its cultural identity. For this reason, many prosperous patrons have invested in the creation of landmark paintings, ballets, operas, and other imaginative masterpieces that help fictionalize the history of the country and imbue the public with patriotism. The ballet Appalachian Spring is one such work, commissioned by Elizabeth Coolidge and written by Aaron Copland, an outstanding American composer, in 1944 (Garafola 135). It is a simple tale of a farmer marrying his fiancée and pondering the difficulties that await them. The performance discussed in this essay is by Martha Graham Dance Company, which is appropriate considering that the troupe premiered the piece at the Library of Congress (Garafola 135). Saratoga Performing Arts Center hosted the event in the summer of 2014 as a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the piece (Burke). The ballet Appalachian Spring first staged as an exercise in escapism during the Second World War, retains its idealized, romantic vision of the American pioneers’ life in the 2014 Martha Graham Company staging.

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The ballet felt significantly contained, possibly due to its short duration. It followed the courtship of a farmer and his bride. Four girls were playing and dancing in the background, possibly symbolizing the carefree time of youth, though they remained standing on the stage while the principal dancers were performing (SPAC Saratoga). An austere pioneer woman observed the proceedings. Near the middle of the recording, a priest entered the stage as a reminder of the wrath of God and delivered a sermon (SPAC Saratoga). His appearance briefly changed the joyous tone of the piece, but the ballet then returned to its hopeful, carefree mood. The performance lasted just under five minutes but managed to communicate the inner turmoil of its characters effectively.

The choreography in the piece did not deviate significantly from the original vision of Martha Graham. The dance incorporated many of the folk elements that would have been familiar to the inhabitants of Appalachia. For instance, the farmer did several high kicks and claps, while the maidens performed a circle dance that would have been a common sight in many spring celebrations. However, the movements done by professional artists were idealized. Moreover, the classical ballet inspiration was evident in the somewhat languid, smooth nature of arm motions. Specifically, the priest departed from the folksy motif; his limbs were wide and reached high as if he was trying to communicate with a higher power. The dancers were exerting significant effort, but they made their work look leisurely.

To keep the focus on the dancers, the staging itself was rather minimalist. In keeping with modern ideas of theatrical shorthand, a piece of shiplap wall and a small platform represented the house of the young couple. A rocking chair inside communicated a sense of home. The only other object on the stage was a bench occupied by the pioneer woman. However, the audience was welcome to imagine a green hill and wide-open skies suitable for the suggested story. The lighting of the stage was similarly straightforward. It did not change throughout the piece, so all the cast members were visible regardless of whether they were performing. Lastly, the costumes were emblematic of the idealized vision of Appalachia that the piece presented. The maidens were all wearing fresh, clean white dresses, while the bride’s gown was of a bright peach hue. Such dresses would have been considered Sunday’s best by 19th-century farmers, so they were appropriate in a work that tried to show a vision of the magical American past to audiences worried about the war. Overall, all elements of staging were minimal to allow the dancers to shine.

Despite the great effort of the dancers, Appalachian Spring feels outdated in a way that most classical ballets do not. Perhaps due to the preserved vision of its 1940s creators, the piece seems like an attempt to recapture something that never truly existed. It endeavors to tap into the feelings of patriotic nostalgia, but modern Americans do not celebrate the same values and events as their predecessors. Moreover, some of the folk-inspired movements seem almost comical. Modern American dance often takes advantage of such elements of off-beat rhythm and isolated motions (Lihs 4-5). None of these elements are present in Appalachian Spring. While the ballet is fascinating from a historical perspective, it is unclear whether it would appeal to modern audiences.

Conclusion

Appalachian Spring is an American ballet that presents an idealized vision of America. It was produced during World War II specifically to inspire patriotism in its viewers. It takes advantage of certain modernist elements, such as minimal set, but taps into folk traditions and classical training for its choreography. The dancers make their complicated work look effortless, but the idea behind the piece is outdated, making the performance look comical. Nevertheless, Appalachian Spring is sure to garner further interest as a product of its time among dance historians.

Works Cited

Burke, Siobhan. “Decades Later, a Quintessential Journey Continues to Resonate.” The New York Times, 2014, Web.

Lihs, Harriet R. Appreciating Dance: A Guide to the Worlds Liveliest Art. 5th ed., Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 2018.

Garafola, Lynn. “Making an American Dance: Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring.” Aaron Copland and his World, edited by Carol J. Oja and Judith Tick. Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 121-147.

SPAC Saratoga. “Appalachian Spring – Martha Graham Dance Company.” YouTube, 2014, Web.

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StudyKraken. (2022, August 24). Appalachian Spring: The Idealized Vision of America’s Past. Retrieved from https://studykraken.com/appalachian-spring-the-idealized-vision-of-americas-past/

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StudyKraken. (2022, August 24). Appalachian Spring: The Idealized Vision of America’s Past. https://studykraken.com/appalachian-spring-the-idealized-vision-of-americas-past/

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"Appalachian Spring: The Idealized Vision of America’s Past." StudyKraken, 24 Aug. 2022, studykraken.com/appalachian-spring-the-idealized-vision-of-americas-past/.

1. StudyKraken. "Appalachian Spring: The Idealized Vision of America’s Past." August 24, 2022. https://studykraken.com/appalachian-spring-the-idealized-vision-of-americas-past/.


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StudyKraken. "Appalachian Spring: The Idealized Vision of America’s Past." August 24, 2022. https://studykraken.com/appalachian-spring-the-idealized-vision-of-americas-past/.

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StudyKraken. 2022. "Appalachian Spring: The Idealized Vision of America’s Past." August 24, 2022. https://studykraken.com/appalachian-spring-the-idealized-vision-of-americas-past/.

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StudyKraken. (2022) 'Appalachian Spring: The Idealized Vision of America’s Past'. 24 August.

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